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"Freddie! Stop! Please!" Florence falls to the ground with the force of Freddie's punch. Her third beating this week, by far the worst out of all of them. She had hoped her news would prevent more humiliation like this.

"It's not my fault you had sex with that red. You should have thought things through before you made such a stupid decision. I told you he'd leave you. I told you he never loved you." Freddie's words are punctuated with alternating blows from his hands and feet.

No, he left because he loved me. Florence curls closer onto herself, trying to protect the physical remains of her lost love. Freddie's steel toed boot drives between her spine and shoulder blade as she gasps for breath.

"No, Freddie. You'll hurt the baby." Florence forces the words out the best she can, only managing a hushed whisper. The edges of her vision begin to blur and blacken as the pain over takes her. Every fibre of her being aches. The blows continue falling but she's too tired react beyond a wince. The floor is smeared with Florence's blood, evidence of where Freddie's blows broke the skin. She begs the tears not to come, holding tight to her last remaining shred of dignity.

"You think I care about the offspring of that fuck? You idiot girl. That child should be ashamed of its parents." Florence remains curled in a ball on the floor, unresponsive. She fights her body as her consciousness begins to fade. "Whatever. I'm bored. Don't forget to clean up the blood." Freddie slams the door on his way out, no doubt headed to the bar again. Florence knows he'll be home in the morning, itching for another fight. Just as she begins to uncurl from her position, a sharp pain rips across her abdomen. No. It's too early. It's far too early. I still have seven months to go. What's going on? The pain intensifies and Florence cries out, the sound echoing through the silent apartment. Fear courses through her as the pain in her abdomen surpasses that of the beating. The pain eases slightly as blood puddles on the floor. Tears finally flow from Florence's eyes as the reality sets in. Her baby is gone.

Chapter Text

It's just another school. Nothing you haven't done before. Florence Vassy takes a deep breath before pushing open the front door of the high school. Metropolitan this time, as opposed to the rural high school where she had just completed her freshman year of high school. She walks briskly through the crowded halls, trying to appear confident. A new family less than a week before school started. Such is the life of a foster child. Florence fingers her necklace, left in her hands as her father was dragged from the room. A little girl, forgotten, until the kind neighbor came to take care of the house. Found tear streaked and hungry, hiding under the kitchen sink, clutching the necklace in her tiny hands. A minuscule chess piece, a white queen, strung on a thin chain. Her only physical tie to her father. How she wishes he were here, that she was still in Hungary, attending the local high school and spending her free time playing chess with her father. It was just them. Florence's mother died in a car accident before Florence's second birthday. Florence is drawn from her thoughts as a shoulder rams into hers in the packed hallway.

"Hey! Watch where you're going!" The boy struts away and Florence continues on to her class, studying the floor the entire time. She arrives to an empty classroom, except for the teacher. He looks up at her with a sneer.

"This is an upper level class." The disgust and disapproval in his voice send Florence's stomach churning.

"Probability and statistics level two, strategy? With Mr. Drill?" Florence tries to hide the nervous tremors in her voice, sending them though her hands instead.

"Yes. For juniors and seniors only."

"This is what's on my schedule, sir." She cautiously walks up to his desk and shows him the worn piece of paper with all her class on it. He squints as he reads it.

"Very well. You will perform to my standards, and if not, well, we don't want that to happen, do we?"

"No, sir." Florence chooses a seat on the far side of the classroom in the front row, determined to meet his standards. A few minutes before the bell rings, the other students begin to file into class. Not a glance in Florence's direction by anybody. The bell rings and class begins.

"Welcome to prob and stats level two, focus on strategy. I advise you not to be late to my class. Do not fool around. Do not misbehave in any way. Are we clear?" Mr. Drill's growly voice silences the classroom, wiping the smiles from most faces as well. One boy continues to smile broadly, leaning his chair back on two legs and ruffling his dusty blond hair.

"Strategy? This'll be a breeze." Florence watches the fellow, intrigued by his confidence and good looks, but not quite sure what to think.

"I'm sorry you think so, Mr. Trumper, but your silly little game will not guarantee your success in my class." He fixes the boy with a piercing glare. The chair lands firmly on four legs again as the Trumper boy begins to laugh.

"Did he really just call the greatest strategy game in history a 'silly little game?'"

"Freddie, hush." The cheerleader behind him lays a hand on Freddie's shoulder as she quiets him. Now Florence is very curious. A member of the popular crowd, defending chess? Couldn't be. It would be an interesting contradiction, though. Florence fingers her necklace again, a nervous habit. Freddie glances her way and she drops her eyes to her lap.

"Now that we've gotten that cleared up, I supposed we can begin actual education, instead of this foolish nonsense." Mr. Drill's voice drones on for the next hour over material simple to Florence, giving her time to think life over. She sketches out chess strategies around the borders of her notes. As the bell rings, the Freddie boy jumps up onto his chair.

"This Friday! Everyone meet in the library for chess club! Come see me whoop this old man's butt!" Freddie shouts before swiftly exiting the classroom. Chess club? Florence's face breaks into a wide grin for the first time since arriving in this city. Perhaps this time will go better.

Chapter Text

"Florence! Where are you? You're going to be late!" The tight lipped woman stalks away from the bottom of the stair case. Striking green eyes make eye contact with themselves in the mirror as the thin brunette calls back to her foster mother.

"I'm coming. I'm almost ready. I won't be late again, I promise." Florence bends to snatch her black cross body bag. Her getaway bag. Not large, but enough. If something were to happen while she was at school today and she were not to return back to this house, she would have what's important to her. Many years as a foster child, passing through family after family, has taught Florence never to settle, never to give in to the illusion of safety. Because in an instant, everything can change. Your house can change, your state can change, your family can change. Your life can change. So Florence doesn't get close to her families anymore. She gives them the illusion that she is yet keeps her innermost being guarded and safe. Slipping on her shoes, Florence hurries down the stairs.

"There you are, silly girl. Have you taken your medicine yet today? I keep telling you if you prayed more you wouldn't need it. Of course, you look like a witch today so the Good Lord might be wise and overlook you anyways. Come on. Off you go." The middle aged woman appears and acts older than she actually is, strict and stern and straight as a rod. And often by the rod. At least her husband is. A proper Christian woman should never be the one to handle discipline in the household.

It's not like I want to take those stupid little pills anyways. And don't you think I've tried praying? Praying that my father would come back? That I'd be safe? That the next family would be nicer? Trust me, lady. I've prayed. I've prayed harder than you've ever done in your entire life. But did it help? No. Florence swings her bag down and pulls out the little orange bottle under her foster mother's strict supervision. The two women, one older and one younger, stand roughly eye to eye as Florence downs the pills with a swig of coffee. She shoves the medicine bottle back into her bag and grabs her coffee as she heads out the door. The walk to school isn't far, and the weather isn't bad. Florence breathes in the fresh fall air and closes her eyes for a few steps. Her gait is proper and elegant, accentuated by her long graceful neck extending from her turtleneck and her long skirt flowing behind her. She hums a sweet Hungarian folk song as she nears the school, the music in her head providing a distraction from the chaotic noise from the students. Her slight smile begins to fade as she can no longer drown out the comments directed at her.

"Hey, witch! Why don't you fly to school instead of walk? You know, on your broomstick?"

"Wow, what's wrong with her? Is she gothic? I bet she cuts herself and sleeps around."

"Are you kidding me? Who'd sleep with that?" Florence rolls her eyes at the stupidity of high school students.

"Whose funeral are you going to? Your mom's? Or is it your dad's? Oh wait. You don't know what happened to your dad!" Laughter erupts from the crowd.

"Poor loser. Even her own parents didn't love her." Florence's slight smile of earlier is gone, a mask of unfeeling in place once again. Today is Friday. Chess day. It'll be alright. Florence wearily pulls open the door to the high school, hoping the worst of the day is over.

Chapter Text

Florence arrives in the library early and spots the chess set on one of the tables. Smiling, she walks over and begins setting the pieces. Tension fades from her shoulders and she stands taller in her comfort zone. The door slams shut and she turns.

"Mr. Frederick. You're here early." Florence speaks in a formal but polite tone, curtsying slightly in his direction. She steps back from the board and folds her hands in front of her.

He nods in her direction and sits down at the board, familiarizing himself with the board. "Did you set this up?" Florence nods silently. "Thank you." They fall silent and the rest of the students begin to file in. Finally, Mr. Drill enters and sits opposite Freddie. The match begins. Florence watches every move analyzing the game and anticipating the outcome. Freddie is in the lead, it's an easy win. Four moves from the end he has two options of where to move. And he chooses disastrously. Mr. Drill swoops in and takes his king, ending the game. The men shake and the students exit, sans Freddie who remains to clean up. Florence emerges from the shadows.

"You played wonderfully." She helps him put away the pieces, her efficient caution and care contrasting his reckless frustration.

"Thank you. I still lost." He refuses to look at her, focusing instead on the chess board.

"Not necessarily. If you'd moved your knight instead of your bishop four moves from the end you'd have had it in the bag. Easily." Freddie looks up at her, eyebrows furled in confusion. Girls don't play chess. And if so, not that well.

"How do you know that?"

"I play chess as well, Mr. Frederick." Well what do you know. Girls do play chess. And pretty ones at that.

"Um, please, drop the formalities. It's Freddie."

"Florence."

"Well, Florence. I'm glad you enjoyed the game. Would you care for another?"

"I would love to but I have to get to class."

"Over lunch then?"

"Don't you have friends you'd rather sit with?"

"My friends are concerned about looks and popularity. I'd much rather pass the time playing chess."

"If it's not a hassle I'd love to. Where shall we meet?"

"It's a deal. Meet back here, in the library. If we're quiet they don't mind." They part ways and time flies for Florence. Instead of spending lunch in the library alone, she'll be spending it playing chess with the head of the chess club! Finally the bell rings for lunch and Florence hurries to her locker before heading to the library. Freddie’s head jerks up from the board as he hears the door open. Whoa. Florence’s soft brunette hair cascades down her back as she gently closes the door. She turns around, her face glowing with delight. Crossing to the table, she gracefully removes her crossbody black bag and sets down her coffee.

“Thanks for setting up the board, Freddie. Are you ready to play?” Childlike innocence and excitement hides behind formality at the upcoming game. Freddie looks at her coffee cup in confusion.

“Is that all you’re having? I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to keep you from eating.”

“No, you’re fine. This is what I always have. Thank you for joining me here.”

“It’s my pleasure. Please, I packed far too much for one person to eat. Have some.”

“You really don’t have to do that. I’m okay. Really.”

“I insist. If I had a proper mother she’d not have raised me to let such a tiny thing like you go without a proper meal.” Florence ducks her head as she blushes and then raises her head, brows furled in concern, as the comment about his mother sinks in.

“You’re mother isn’t as you’d like her to be?”

“To put it simply I don’t exist to her anymore. But my relationship with my mother is beside the point. Today we’re going to play chess. And hopefully get you to eat a proper meal.”

“It’s okay, Freddie. I can’t exactly say I understand, but I kind of do. My mother died when I was three years old.” The formal elegance Florence always portrays falls away as age old pain resurfaces and the childlike brokenness returns. Two sets of eyes meet, as if seeing each other in a new light. Someone who shares the pain and doesn’t expect them to be everything the world expects them to be. A spark of belonging flares, finding peaces and solace in chess in the absence of a family. Some unspoken connection passes between the two. They drop their eyes to the chess board in front of them. Freddie breaks the meaningful silence with a few quiet words.

“White always goes first.”

Chapter Text

Before they know it, the bell rings to signal them to begin returning to class. Florence and Freddie make eye contact over the board, wishing it didn’t have to be over. Florence sighs and bends to pick up her bag.

“Thank you for the wonderful game. I’m sorry we didn’t get to finish.” She begins to leave and Freddie lightly grabs her elbow.

“Wait, I mean, does it really have to end? You’re a good student. You can catch up. What teacher do you have?” Freddie grasps at straws, struggling to maintain his formality while also conveying how much he wants her to stay. The game is a challenge. He is evenly matched or even possibly the underdog. He hasn’t had such a thrill in ages.

“I have history with Mr. Frankle.” Florence replies cautiously.

“He’s so laid back he won’t care if you’re gone one day. Besides, I had that class this morning. All you do is watch a movie. No notes or anything. Please stay.” Florence hesitates. Then sits back down.

"Okay. Since you seem so convinced there'll be no harm done."

"There won't be." Florence bites back a smile at Freddie's confident tone and accomplished smile. Twenty minutes later the accomplished grin has turned into a dropped jaw. "But....how?"

"Simple. Strategy." Now it's Florence's turn for the smug grin, her eyes dancing.

“No shit, Sherlock.” Freddie mutters under his breath. “That’s strategy if I’ve ever seen it.” Florence giggles and blushes, flattered at such high praise from the school’s chess master. “Pardon my French, kind lady. It’s just the first time I’ve been bested by a girl.” To compensate for his foul language, Freddie turns on the elegant speech pattern and pathetic British accent.

“Oh, so you think women can’t play chess?” Florence retaliates with a flawless British accent, sipping her coffee with a delicate pinky lifted.

“So now you out-accent me too? Is there anything you can’t do?” Freddie leans his chair back in disbelief at the enchanting young lady sitting in front of him. She chuckles as her face falls.

“There’s lots of things I can’t do. And the accent isn’t hard. I lived in England for a number of years.” Florence studies her hands, providing an explanation without giving away too much of herself. Frederick is…intriguing. Something about him draws her to him, gives her life again. Maybe it’s the chess. Maybe it’s the connection between their lack of mothers. Maybe it’s that he’s the first person in years to believe her existence is positive. But her instinct is to draw back, not to get close to anyone. But maybe it’s time to give trust a try again. Oh hell, Florence thinks as she throws caution to the wind. She lifts her head again to meet his gaze, catching him watching her. Freddie catches the hint and tries to direct the conversation back to a subject she’s comfortable with.

“Is that where you learned to play chess?” Freddie’s face falls at the sudden appearance of deep, irreparable sadness behind Florence’s beautiful eyes.

“No.” The word barely comes out as a hushed whisper. She takes a deep breath and tries again. “No. I learned to play chess in Hungary, from my father.” Florence drops her gaze and stares at her hands, the pain of losing her father beyond the point of tears. A third hand enters her vision as Freddie covers her two petite hands with his larger, muscular one. He reaches with his other hand and lifts her chin with a single, gentle forefinger.

“Hey, it’s okay. If you don’t want to talk about it, I understand. But if you do, I’ll listen.” Florence attempts a smile but only manages a twitch in the right direction. Freddie trails his finger from beneath her chin up her cheek and across her cheekbone. He tucks a stray piece of hair behind her ear. His hand slips behind her neck, drawing her towards him. The smell of coffee and something else--tenacity, maybe? strength?—intoxicates him. Their faces hover centimeters apart, hesitating, before their lips collide in a wondrous kiss. Tenderness and care flavor the kiss and the air around them. They separate and Florence draws away, blinking back tears.

“I….I have to go.” She scrambles to grab her coffee and black bag before rushing out of the library, leaving Freddie alone with a confused expression and a bested chess game.

Chapter Text

Dammit why did I let myself trust again? I should have known it would only get me in trouble. My first kiss and I ran. My first friend here and I ran. What a stupid idiot. The bell rings releasing student's to their last class of the day and Florence emerges from the ladies room. She holds her head high as she makes her way to the history hallway. Once again she chooses a seat in the column of desks furthest from the door, this time second from the front. She takes out her notebook and buries her nose in a book until a familiar face enters her peripheral vision. You have got to be kidding me. Freddie Trumper slips into the seat beside her just as the final bell rings. The teacher squints at him, knowing his notorious reputation for being tardy. She moves on, handing out a list of rules and beginning the first day rules and guidelines lecture. Florence sees Freddie scrawling on the corner of his paper, not daring to try and decipher it from a distance. After waiting to see that the teacher won’t notice, Freddie quietly rips a strip of paper from the margin, blank except for his note. He keeps is eyes on the teacher as he lightly tosses the folded strip onto Florence’s desk. She unfolds it, refusing to meet Freddie’s gaze.

Can we talk? She swallows hard before writing back and returning the note.

Maybe. What would you like to talk about?

Us.

There is no us. I’m sorry, Freddie.

Don’t be sorry. It was my fault, my mistake. Will you forgive me?

You’re not the only one at fault. I didn’t stop you. There’s really nothing for you to apologize for. But of course I’ll forgive you. Will you forgive me?

Gladly. Put it behind us?

Already there. Freddie folds up the now full paper and sticks it in his pocket, a satisfied grin on his face. Florence lets out a sigh of relief and sits a little taller. The teacher finishes her lecture and the students begin to pack up their belongings for the end of school. Freddie touches Florence’s elbow to get her attention.

“Are you busy tonight? Would you like to meet somewhere for a rematch? Betcha can’t beat me twice in a row.” Freddie adds with a grin. Florence can’t help but grin a little in response.

“It sounds delightful, Freddie, but I’m not sure. I’ll have to check with Mrs. Aleksei. Chances are I won’t be able to go. I’m sorry.”

“That’s okay. It was a long shot on a short notice anyways.” Freddie pauses, thinking. “Wait, Aleksei? On Reviere Avenue?”

“Yes. That’s my current place of residence.” He follows her to her locker.

“I live on the next street over. Our back yards collide.”

“Oh.” Florence drops her head. Freddie’s face falls as he gets a glimpse into her life. For  his few long weeks as a foster child he stayed with the Alekseis. Picture perfect on the outside to hide the horrors on the inside. Always testing the limits of abuse, verbally and physically, always crossing the line emotionally.  “I’ve got to go. They don’t like when I’m home late.”

“Well, then, can I walk you home?” She hands him her books as she gathers the rest of her belongings.

“Sure, but…”  Florence shuts her locker and they begin the journey home.

“But what?”

“You have to turn off the street before my house. The Alekseis don’t like me fraternizing with boys.”

“I understand. They didn’t like seeing me with girls either.” Florence turns to him, shocked.

“What do you mean?” They walk together along the deserted street.

“I was a foster child for a few weeks. I stayed with them.”

“Oh. I’m sorry.” Florence hesitates, looking into the distance, away from Freddie. “I’m a foster child too.”

“I’m sorry.”

“Here’s your street. Thanks for the chess and walking me home. See you later, Mr. Frederick.” They depart down their separate streets as

“Viszontlátásra, kedvesem.” Florence looks back over her shoulder, her eyes open and vulnerable, but Freddie has already turned away.

“Vigyázzon a szívem.” Florence whispers to Freddie’s fading back, then turns and heads to her house. Blinking back tears, she approaches the front door. Silently, she slips into the empty house and locks the door behind her. Why?...How?... Florence lets out a sigh of frustration. Why does Freddie care about her? Does he really care or does he just want something? He seems to be genuine, but you never can know for sure. Florence knows all too well about people not being genuine. It’s rarer to find someone who actually is genuine. But what if she has?

Chapter Text

“Florence! Where are you, stupid girl?” Florence races down the stairs, straightening her appearance at the bottom of the stairs before stepping into the living room.

“Right here, Mr. Aleksei. You summoned me?” The old man’s eyes squint under his intimidating grey eyebrows, face wrinkling in its permanent scowl.

“Yes, I summoned you. Where is my dinner?” Florence’s breath quicked. It’s 5:02pm. Supper must be started at 5:00pm when Florence is cooking.

“As of this morning, you and Mrs. Aleksei had a date night planned for tonight. I was told not to fix dinner.” Her voice shakes as she fears the consequences.

“The plan changed. Stupid girl, you should have known that. No supper for you tonight. What a shame you’d have to be such a failure.” Mr. Aleksei rises to his feet and Florence quakes where she stands. She learned long ago it’s better not to run. She tries her best to stand firm as his fists rain down on her. An intense blow to the stomach bends her in half and a blow to the back buckles her knees. A strong hand grabs her hair and yanks her to her feet, dragging her to her bedroom. She stumbles along behind him as best as she can. He throws her door open and shoves her inside. To Florence’s dismay, the blind has been left open. The door slams behind her as she staggers to the window, catching a glimpse of a familiar face across the backyard before drawing the blinds with a shaky hand. She doesn’t even make it to the bed before pain and exhaustion overwhelm her. Her vision fades to black and consciousness is gone before she hits the floor.

Freddie’s brow furrows in concern. Why did Florence draw the blinds so quickly? Why was she limping and white as a sheet? Why did her shadow collapse before it disappeared from view?  Freddie waits until it’s dark before sneaking out of the house and stealthily crossing his backyard. He approaches the fence dividing the yard. A glance over tells him the lights are out at the Aleksei’s and all are asleep. He nimbly propels himself over the fence and across the yard. He pauses, looking up at her window before stooping to the ground and picking up a handful of pebbles from the garden. He prays Florence is a light sleeper as he throws one, then another small rock up at her window. He’s about to throw a third one when suddenly her shadow appears behind the curtain, quickly replaced with a weary looking face. Bruises stand out against her ghostly white skin. She holds a single finger to her mouth before disappearing from sight. The few seconds seem like hours to Freddie as he stands outside her window before she returns to view. Silently, she opens the window and throw out a rope, grounded to something inside. She climbs out onto the windowsill, crouching as she closes the window as far as she can from the outside. Her bruises become more visible to Freddie as she steadily makes her way down the rope. Soon she’s standing before him, looking like a darkened angel of the night. Her black turtleneck and skirt from earlier contrast her unusually pale skin, her bare feet silent against the cool grass.

“What are you doing here?” Florence’s soft voice breaks through the night as she stares up at him, the height difference accentuated with her lack of shoes. Freddie struggles for words as he takes in her contrasting appearance, feet spread apart, arms crossed, jaw set in determination, strength, and defiance, bruises forming and an innocence broken look behind the pain in her eyes. Gently, Freddie brushes a stray bit of hair from Florence’s face. His hand quivers and a forefinger accidentally brushes a deep purple bruise. Florence flinches almost imperceptibly.

“I…” Freddie pauses and takes a breath. “I wanted to make sure you were okay. I’m sorry I was too late.” Florence offers a sad smile as she begins to comfort Freddie.

“No, Freddie, don’t say that. I’m touched that you came. I’m sorry I was sharp with you. I was just…confused. What do you mean you were too late?”

“I couldn’t stop him. I couldn’t save you. I couldn’t—“ Florence cuts Freddie off with a gentle finger to his lips.

“No. There’s nothing you could have done. Don’t blame yourself for this. At all.”

“Not even a little?”

“Not even a little. Come on. It’s nice to have someone else up at this hour. Care for a walk?” She heads off towards the street, leaving Freddie standing in the yard.

“Florence, it’s past midnight. Is it really safe?”

“It’s alright, pretty boy, I’ll keep you safe.” Florence throws a grin over her shoulder and Freddie hurries to catch up.

“Pretty boy? Really?” Florence shrugs, her eyes dancing in the moonlight. “Fine. Whatever. Where exactly are we going?”

“I like to go to the old cable car station. It’s a great place to think.”

“Isn’t it rumored to be…haunted there?” Florence notes how Freddie’s voice jumped half a pitch and struggles to keep her face straight. So the pretty boy is scared of cable cars.

“Ghosts make nice company. I bet they’ll be delighted I’m bringing a boy.”

“Oh come on. Florence, ghosts aren’t real.”

“How do you know? Maybe one will just sneak up on you and—Gotcha!” Florence laughs as Freddie stifles a squeal, jumping a foot in the air when she grabbed his arm. “So ghosts and cable cars. Anything else I should know you’re scared of?” Florence continues conversation and steers their direction away from the old cable cars.

“Pretty girls who can beat me at chess.” Florence rolls her eyes. “Like you.”

“Shut up Freddie. I may be able to whoop you at chess but I’m not pretty…My mother was beautiful. I never got to play her in chess though. I hear she was wonderful. She could even beat my father.” Freddie watches Florence as she speaks of her mother. Her face softens and the corners of her lips creep up into a slight smile. What he’d give for such pleasant memories of his mother.

“Your father taught you how to play chess?”

“Yes. He gave me a chess set for my fourth birthday. Every day we would play before he left for work and again when he got home. Often we’d play all evening and well past my bedtime. I wouldn’t trade a bit of it now.”

“Did you go to London with your father? Chess championships would have been there around that time.”

“No. I was born in Hungary. I haven’t seen my father since I was five and a half years old.” Hungary. 1956. Foster child. Freddie puts the pieces together.

“Florence…I’m so sorry.” Florence looks at the ground, ashamed of her early morning revelation.

“Don’t be. We may not be together any more, but I still have hope that he’s out there somewhere. I’ll find him again, someday.”

Chapter Text

The sky begins to lighten and Florence hurries back to the Aleksei’s, Freddie struggling to keep up.  Soon they reach the back yard and Florence begins her ascent up the rope, pausing at the top to wave goodbye to Freddie, watching her from the other side of the fence. She opens the window and climbs in quickly, reshutting the window and stuffing the rope under her bed silently. The clock blares 5:41am. Whew. Four minutes. I got this. Quickly, Florence changes into a fresh outfit, taking care to choose something less…”witchy.” Hoping a jeans skirt and tights will satisfy Mrs. Aleksei, Florence takes one last glance in the mirror before grabbing her bag and heading downstairs. She tugs on her shirt sleeve, making sure to cover the darkening bruise on her wrist.  She breezes into the kitchen and the older woman looks at the clock. Mrs. Aleksei narrows her eyes as the clock turns 5:46am seconds after Florence enters. She doesn't say a word, and Florence continues bustling around. She sets the coffee maker to brew as she prepares breakfast for Mr. and Mrs. Aleksei. Just as Florence sets down a cup of coffee in front of Mrs. Aleksei, her husband enters, oddly smug about something.

“Do you know what today is?” he asks to no one in particular. “This is a wonderful day in history. Nine years ago today our ancestors’ descendants began to conquer the world. Shame we couldn't be with them. Oh well, we’ll support them any way we can, right honey?” His wife nods and smiles a simpering sweet smile. Florence quivers where she stands, struggling to prepare her foster “father’s” coffee. She barely manages to sit in down in front of him without spilling. “Oh yes, and Florence, we will be celebrating and having company tonight. You are to prepare a  ravishing supper for us and then make yourself sparse. I don’t want to see you, hear you, notice you in any way after they arrive. Is that clear?” Florence swallows and straightens her stance.

“Yes, sir.” Her voice still comes out a fraction of what she intends. Half a whisper instead of a firm, strong answer. Nine years since she’s seen her father. Nine years since her home was destroyed. Nine long years. How ironic that she’d be preparing a meal to celebrate the loss of her life as she knew it. Florence takes a deep breath, pushing aside all thoughts and feelings from that day, as she continues her morning routine. She heads out the door, grateful for the walk alone. The cool fall air clears her head as she approaches the school. Other students point and laugh. She pretends not to notice but she does. Oh how she does. If only she had, even just one parent, there to love and support her, it’d be okay. She slides into her first period seat, hair swinging forward like a curtain as she begins to read. The words squirm on the page, her mind whirring too fast to read. A hand pulls back her sheath of hair and she jumps, turning wide eyed on the owner of the hand. Freddie stares back at her, looking just as surprised and startled as she does.

“You okay?” he asks softly. She drops her face and swings her hair forward again, not in the mood to talk.

“I’m fine.” Freddie pauses, cautious of the the hostility masking the pain in her voice. His hesitation is interrupted as Mr. Drill begins his lecture. He scrawls three words on the corner of his paper before angling it to show Florence. Chess, library, lunch? She nods almost imperceptibly  in return. As much as he really tries to pay attention to the lecture, Freddie can’t keep his mind off Florence, his concern for her, the odd way she makes him want to be real, not just some shallow popular kid. The morning passes as slow as any other, but eventually it’s time for lunch. The bell rings and the hallways flood with students. Freddie breaks off and heads to the library again. Florence is already there, sitting at their usual table, staring at the chess board.

“Hey.” Freddie swings his bag down and sits across from her.

“Hey.” Florence responds without lifting her eyes from the board.

“You okay?” Florence raises her eyes enough to throw him a disgruntled look.

“White goes first.” Okay then. Freddie plays his opening gambit and Florence combats. They play in silence, a battle of the minds. Florence hesitates for the first time since the game started and Freddie sees the tremors coming through the hand hovering over the bishop.

“Florence, what’s going on? You’re clearly not okay.” Freddie’s brows furrow in concern as he tries to convey as much as he can in a library policy whisper.
“I’m fine. Just thinking about tonight.” Her short halted answers carry a fine bite, though Freddie can’t think of what he might’ve done.

“Tonight? Is there anything special going on?”

“The Aleksei’s have me preparing a celebratory dinner for them this evening, that’s all.” Her voice shakes and she folds her arms tighter around herself, unwinding only her one arm to move pieces, still not lifting her gaze.

“What are they celebrating?” Freddie decides to pry a little deeper, see where it takes him. Florence meets his eyes full on for the first time that day, the hollow flatness guarding the passion and fire and pain hidden in the brilliant, emerald orbs.

“The day they took my father from me.”

Chapter Text

Thoughts tumble through Freddie’s mind as he struggles to comprehend Florence’s words. November 10th. The Aleksei’s Russian relatives. No. Freddie struggles to keep his anger under control. “Let me get this straight…..they have you fixing a celebration dinner, for the day their distant relative’s county destroyed your life as you knew it.” Florence nods and Freddie rocks back in his chair. “So what are you going to do about it?” Florence shakes her head and roles her eye, letting out a breathless, humorless chuckle.

“I’m going to make it. I have to, don’t I?” She leans onto the table, arms unfurled on either side of the board, though the game sits forgotten about.

“No. You don’t have to. You can stand up to them.” Freddie leans forward, impassioned to keep her safe. He lays a hand on her wrist and she flinches terribly.

“Can I really?” A quick glance around the library shows it’s empty except for the librarian behind her desk. Florence tugs up the sleeve of her sweater, revealing deep purple bruises, the definition of the fingerprints clear. Freddie clenches his jaw in angry disbelief. Florence has a point. Submit and die on the inside, or stand and face the consequences physically and emotionally.

“Why do you stay?” Freddie asks after a heavy pause. Florence tugs her sleeve back down as she shrugs wearily.

“What other choice do I have? I can’t live on my own yet. I’m underage. I’ve only been with them a short time. There’s still a chance it’ll get better.” She looks Freddie in the eye, willing him to understand that she doesn’t like it much either, but it’s still reality. Freddie looks down, taking a deep breath.

“Stay with me.”

Florence stares at Freddie in shocked silence. Blink. Blink. “I don’t think I understand…”

“Come and live with me. We have extra room at my house. I’m sure my aunt and uncle wouldn't mind.” Freddie’s face remains open and hopeful as Florence’s eyes become flat and dark.

“What are you playing at?” Her voice is deadly calm.

“Nothing! I’m not playing at anything! I mean it!” Freddie breaks out of his happy dreaming trance and takes in Florence’s emotionless face.

“You and I both know that’s not possible. There’s no way the Aleksei’s would let me leave. And if I run away, when they find me, I either get moved again or I have to go back to the Aleksei’s. Who knows what they would do when I came back.” Emotionless facts. Hope killing logic.

“Florence, it’s awful what they’re doing to you! It has to stop! You have to tell someone, get out…something!!” Florence stares at Freddie, emotionless, retreating back into herself. Silence hangs between them.

“I’ve dealt with worse.” Freddie stares in a confused loss for words as Florence gathers her back and coffee, standing to leave.

“Wait, Florence, what do you mean? Worse?”

“I have to go.”

“No.” Freddie grasps Florence’s elbow and she whirls around.

“Let. Me. Go.” Sparks fly from Florence’s eyes. Freddie puts his other hand on her shoulder.

“Florence, I’m worried about you.”

“Gee thanks, that makes everything all better.” She rips herself from Freddie’s grasp and picks up a brisk pace out of the library, Freddie hot on her heels.

“Florence….”

“No.” She stops and turns to face Freddie. She raises her chin. “I’m not some sort of fairy princess, Mr. Fredrick. I can fight my own battles. And I can win, too. Nothing good ever comes from sitting down and crying when the going gets tough.” Florence turns on her heel and heads down the hallway. Freddie stands, shell shocked, ever perplexed by the mind within the retreating figure in front of him.

Chapter Text

“Florence! Get the damn door!” The door bell rings again and Florence quickly makes her way down the stairs to answer whoever is at their front door. She opens the door just as it rings again to find a very persistent blonde male on her doorstep. Freddie.

“Mr. Frederick. What can I do for you?” Florence keeps her tone level and even, fear and anger residing in her eyes.

“I—“ Freddie begins to speak but it cut off by shouts from the living room, followed by heavy footsteps into the entry way.

“Is that a male voice I hear? What did I tell you, Florence? Are you always a disobedient little slut?” Freddie takes in the grey haired monster standing in front of them, anger stirring inside of him. Mr. Aleskei feigns no recognition as he looks at Freddie. Florence angles her body between the two angry men as she answers.

“Mr. Aleskei, this is Mr. Frederick, from school. He’s in some of my classes and stopped by with a homework question.”

“And he thinks you would be able to help him? Must really be an idiot if he’s even stupider than you.” Florence opens her mouth to answer but Freddie is faster.

“Florence has the highest grade in a class meant to be taken by people two years ahead of her. She’s no more of an idiot than you and I are.”

“Are you insinuating that I’m an idiot, you fool?”

“No, sir. Precisely the opposite. If you’d rather, would you be willing to help me understand this chapter of strategy?” Mr. Aleskei narrows his eyes at Freddie, wanting control over Florence while at the same time not wanting to be bothered by petty teens.

“Kitchen table, both of you. Half an hour, tops. And I never want to see you here again, young man. Do you understand?” Florence nods obedient while Freddie's eyes shoot daggers at the old man. Mr. Aleskei stomps back off into the other room. Florence whirls around and fixes Freddie with a stare, mixed feelings about his visit churning inside of her.

             "We both know you don't need help with strategy." Florence speaks in a low voice to Freddie. She appreciates his care and protectiveness but fears the repercussions and knows there's work to be done.

            "You're right. I don't need help with strategy. But you can sit down with me and we can open a textbook and talk, or I can help you with dinner. Which would you prefer?" Freddie's open deep blue eyes stare into Florence's guarded green ones.

            "Fine. He'll fall asleep to his program soon. It's nearly time to start dinner. You can stay for longer than half an hour, but you must be gone before he awakes." The corner of Freddie's mouth quirks up in a satisfied, almost proud smirk. Florence rolls her eyes and goes to peek into the living room. "He's asleep. Grab the potatoes."

Chapter Text

"Florence?! What the hell is that horrible noise you're making?!" Florence freezes midway through putting away a metal pot. She meets Freddie's eyes with a heartbreaking look of terror. All the tension that Freddie had released in the past hour and a half comes rushing back to Florence.

"Just putting away some pans from making dinner." Florence calls back. Go, now! She mouths frantically to Freddie, but it's too late. Mr. Aleskei stomps into the kitchen and sees Freddie still in his house.

"I thought I told you to leave, young man." Freddie opens his mouth to respond but Florence speaks faster.

"It's my fault, Mr. Aleskei. He stayed to help me with dinner. He was just about to leave." Mr. Aleskei ignores Florence, consumed in an angry rage. He knocks Florence aside with a blow to the temple. She crumples to the ground.

 "No! Florence!" Freddie cries out in fear as the old man grabs a large kitchen knife from the counter. Florence stirs, moved by the terror beside her. Mr. Aleskei raises the knife above his head and takes a step towards Freddie. She stumbles to her feet and launches herself at Freddie. He hears a quick intake of breath as they tumble to the ground. Freddie knocks Mr. Aleskei's legs out from under him and he hits the ground with a solid thud. His chest moves up and down with each breath but otherwise he is still. "Florence...." Freddie gently moves Florence off of his chest. His hand moves across her back and come away sticky. He pulls back his hand and sees its covered in blood. Florence's blood. His pulse races as he searches for her. It's there. Barely. He spots the phone on the wall and leaps up. "911, what's your emergency?" Freddie remembers calling so many times after his step father beat his mother half to death. "627 Reviere Avenue. Unconscious female. Faint pulse. Stab wound across her back, in between her shoulder blades. Please hurry." "An ambulance is on its way. Please hold." Freddie sets the phone down and rushes back to Florence's side, applying pressure to the wound as he holds her gently in his arms. Minutes feel like lifetimes as Freddie waits for the ambulance, feeling Florence's life flow out between his fingers. At last he hears the sirens. The door crashes open and personnel rush in. A team of medics attend to Florence and a policeman approaches Freddie. The noise brings Mr. Aleskei back to consciousness. Freddie follows the officer outside to answer his questions. Yes, it was Mr. Aleskei wielding the knife. Yes, Freddie took him down in self defense. Yes, Mr. Aleskei has displayed violent tendencies before. No, Freddie is of no blood or legal relation to either Florence or Mr. Aleskei. The officer walks away, leaving Freddie alone to watch as they do compressions on Florence's thin chest, a pool of blood underneath her. Someone shouts about feeling a heartbeat. The officer leads Mr. Aleskei out in handcuffs. A minute later, the medic team races Florence out on a stretcher, holding an IV above her as the climb into the back of the ambulance. Her porcelain skin shows no hint of life. The ambulance doors close and they take off, the police car not far behind. The silence haunts Freddie, eerie in the wake of the commotion. He knows Florence won't be coming back. He prays, that if there is a God above, He acts on behalf of His angel on earth. He prays that wherever Florence may be, she is safe.

Chapter Text

Five Years Later....

The convention center for chess tournament primaries is bustling amongst the tightly packed crowds of people. Freddie stands tall, trying to prove his intelligence and skill against his youth. At twenty one years of age, Freddie is barely legal to drink, whereas most of his opponents have been playing as long as he's been alive. He's far from the youngest in the room; families come to visit and support and watch. But he is the youngest competition. Freddie goes in solo, unable to find a second who suits his taste and is willing. Men older and more experienced are unwilling. Boys his age are more interested in the drinking and the girls. The girls remind him too much of...Florence. His heart twists as he sees a head of slightly curled brown hair from across the crowded room. No. It couldn't be her. Could it? Freddie never saw Florence again after that day, not so many years ago. Five short years. Yet Freddie knows he's grown and changed, and assumes that Florence has too. She had to. You don't nearly die at the hands of a foster parent and remain unchanged. Freddie hears his name announced across the speaker, calling him to his game. He looks back to where he thought he saw her, but she is gone. A ghost. A figment of his imagination. He escapes

Freddie Trumper. She was right. The name announced across the speaker confirms Florence's thoughts. She saw him, tried to convince herself it wasn't him. Freddie Trumper. The scar across her back tingles, running a sharp diagonal line between her shoulder blades. Florence feels the weight of every one of her nineteen years, and then some, as she remembers her stint of time with the Aleskeis. Five years ago. A miserable few months. One friend made, a bond over chess. Three months of hell. Four days spent in intensive care, recovering from a knock on death's door. Florence runs her necklace through her fingers, remembering why she plays. In remembrance of her father. As solace in the trials of life. To escape from the memories of the past. She can't see him again, not after all the pain she felt the last time they were together. She's come so far, finishing school, working as a second to chess competitors in addition to a full time job.  Then she remembers how he cared for her. He is tenderness, his understanding, his love. She turns back to where she saw him, searching for a lock of messy blonde hair amidst the heads of crew cut grey. But he is gone. A figment of her imagination. A memory. She returns her attention the the game, her heart remaining with Freddie.

 

Chapter Text

Four Years Later...

Richard de Ceverus, age 73, dies. The man was a phenomenal chess player. Freddie sighs. He'd hoped to play against the man someday. Freddie reads on. The man never married, never fathered any children. Instead, where the names of the surviving relatives would go, the obituary lists Ceverus's second of five years. Florence Vassy. His heart stops. No. It can't be her. His mind races back to the convention four years prior. He'd spoken to Ceverus, inquired about his second. A bright young girl, he'd been told, off exploring the rest of the convention in between games. Yes. Freddie takes his mind for a way to contact her. No phone number listed, no mailing address. His email. Several years ago, he'd contacted Ceverus about a game. Surely a man of his standing wouldn't be the one returning emails. It's a long shot, but a shot none the less.

 

Florence Vassy--

I'm deeply sorry to hear about the passing of Ceverus. I hope you are fairing well. Take as much time as you need to consider, but I would be honored if you would be my second.

Sincerely,

Frederick Trumper

 

There. Short and sweet. Freddie feels his heart is about to beat out of his chest as he presses send. How is she? What happened after that fateful afternoon? Where did she go? Does she even resemble the Florence he knew, all those years ago? A near death experience at the hands of those who were supposed to love her. That's not something you remain unchanged from. Will she even want to see him? Does she remember him? She has to. You don't forget someone you nearly died to save.

Chapter Text

Florence Vassy runs a smoothing hand down each side of her simple black dress as she takes one last look in the mirror. Sadness threatens to rise up and overwhelm her, but not a tear falls from her solemn emerald eyes. Boxes line the wall of the small apartment. It's time to move on. Perhaps somewhere out east this time. Richard always preferred the calm Midwest. Her heart clinches with every memory of him. To lose a father figure not once, but twice, is a cruel trick of fate, Florence has decided. Richard de Ceverus signed Florence on as his second when she was a mere eighteen years old, working over forty hours a week while also attending school full time. He over looked her youth for her drive and potential, paying her enough to allow her to quit her strenuous job at the nursing home. He became the loving father figure she'd lost. Florence hopes his funeral will help to bring closure to the uncertainty of her real father's fate.

Florence returns to her apartment after the funeral, heart broken beyond tears. Lowering the casket into the ground, the full realization that she's once again all alone....it was hard. But she didn't cry. Florence never cries. There's always someone else to be strong for. Countless strangers cried on Florence's shoulder today, those who may not have known her, but knew Richard and appreciated her eulogy that did his life justice. She crumples into an exhausted heap on the floor in front of the computer. She checks Richard's email for one of the last times. Spam. Lost of condolences from his friends and fans. A message with the words "Dear Florence" in the subject line. Her brows furrow in confusion as she checks the sender. Frederick Trumper. Well that's a name she hasn't heard in a while. Sure, she keeps a distant eye on him, learning of his steps up in the chess world, but she hasn't heard from him since....that afternoon. The day she disappeared. Memories threaten to overwhelm her but she shoves them down. Intelligent eyes quickly scan the contents of the email. He wants her to come work with him, be his second. Oh dear. She stands and walks away from the computer. How to respond? Yes? No? Give it time? She knows she's not the same person she was the last time they knew each other. Sure, she looks the same, but inside she's changed so much. She's stronger now, more self sufficient. Her walls are built higher, built stronger. Florence spins around and returns to the computer, typing Freddie's name into a search engine. He currently resides in New Jersey. What the hell...She types out a quick reply from her own email rather than Richard's, accepting Freddie's offer. She stands and looks at the boxes against the wall, wondering how quickly she can leave this place.

Chapter Text

Florence presses her hands against the window glass, looking out down upon street lights below. The cool glass feels nice against her sweaty forehead. The view from her sixth floor apartment is well worth carrying all of her boxes up six flights of stairs. Oh how she'd missed the rush of the city. Florence scans the boxes stacked against the wall, then reaches for the one on top. She pulls out a mug and a tea bag before grabbing her book and heading to the kitchen. After a little coaxing, water comes out of the faucet. Filling up her mug, Florence sets the microwave timer and heads back into the living area. The previous renter of the apartment left a smattering of furnishing, for which Florence was very grateful. Trying to move a bed up six flights of stairs alone certainly did not make the bucket list. Florence locates the box with bedsheets before the microwave beeps, calling her back to the kitchen to finish making tea. Ten minutes later, she sits on her freshly made bed, a warm cup of tea in one hand and a good book in the other. The story draws her into the book as the clock ticks later and later. Midnight comes and goes, and by the time Florence glances up from the entrancing novel, it's nearing one-thirty in the morning. As she takes her mug to the sink, Florence takes notice of the soft guitar music coming from the apartment directly above her. It sound so....familiar. Florence can't put her finger on why, but something inside her demands she must find the music. Without regard to her get up of an oversized tshirt and leggings, Florence ventures outside of her apartment and up a flight of stairs until she stands right outside the apartment where the music is being made. Logic finally steps in as Florence prepares to knock on the door. No. One-thirty in the morning is no time to be knocking on a stranger's door. She lowers herself to the floor, sitting with her back against the door. Just a few minutes.... she tells herself.

Chapter Text

The door swings open and Florence jolts awake to find herself sprawled in the middle of doorway. "Florence?" She peers up at the man towering above her before scrambling to her feet.

"Mr. Trumper. Hi. Um, sorry about that." His hair's gotten longer. He'd always kept it cut short in the past. The way the front flips in front of his intense blue eyes....Focus, Florence. Business. A wonderful chuckle escapes his lips as she tries and fails to appear calm, collected, and professional.

"Don't worry about it. And you know it's Freddie, Florence. It's good to see you. I was just heading out for a run. Do you live here as well? When did you get here?" His eyes haven't changed a bit. His voice has evened out though, smoothing into an even tenor. She'd forgotten how young they'd both been when she left. His vocal chords hadn't yet finished going through puberty.

"I live a floor below. I just got in last night. I had been hoping to meet up with you today; however these are not the circumstances I would've chosen." A faint blush rises to her cheeks like he'd remembered from so long ago, the same way she'd been blushing throughout their entire first chess game together, intensifying with each compliment he gave.  Her tshirt hangs off her shoulder revealing a prominent collarbone. She's just as painfully thin as she had been all those years ago.

"Well, welcome." He smiles at her, comfort exuding from his eyes and smile. "You know where I live now, and you're welcome any time. If you need any help unpacking, just let me know. I remember what a chore it was." He makes an expression to try and draw a laugh out of her. The corner of her mouth quirks up in what hints at a smile.

"I'll be fine, thank you for the generous offer. Sorry to interrupt your run. I'll get out of your hair." Before he can say another word, she's gone down the hallway, head down and hand in her hair as like whenever she's embarrassed. He opens his mouth to call after her but instead simply watches her go. Underneath the all the grown up layers, there's still the vulnerable, young girl Freddie began to care for so many years ago. He did the right thing in asking her to be his second. Shutting the door behind him, Freddie takes off at a jog for the stairs. The faster he gets through his morning workout, the faster he gets to work, and the sooner he gets to see Florence again. A smile breaks across his face as the day dawns with new appeal.

I fell asleep in his doorway. Back in her apartment, Florence groans at herself. How could she be so stupid? Having a previous history with the man makes him more likely to over look this morning's...incident. But the past that they had? Florence represses a shudder as the scars on her back tingle, nerves set on edge. She hopes maybe he can look over that too. He's grown and changed, and heaven knows so has she. Florence shakes her head and begins to unpack, busying herself until time to get ready for work. And time to see Freddie again.

Chapter Text

Zzzzzzzt. "Please state your name, destination, and purpose for arrival." Florence takes a deep breath as she presses the button to speak into the buzzer.

"Florence Vassy, office 4B, work orientation." The speaker buzzes again and she hears the clicking sound of the door unlocking. Upon entrance to the building, Florence opts to take the stairs up to the fourth floor. The elevator would have been quicker, but Florence always takes the stairs when given the choice. And she needs to burn off some nervous energy. The fourth floor stairwell door opens to office 4E, and Florence takes a right to try and find 4B. Barely a few steps down the hallway, a blonde man whips around the corner, coffee in hand and a broad grin on his face. Freddie.

"Florence! Great! You're here! The office is this direction," he gestures to the hall behind her, "and the coffee's that direction." He points a thumb back to the direction he came from, never stopping moving. Florence turns around and falls in step with him. "Okay, so you kinda get to hit the ground running today. I hope that's alright. This morning we'll show you around, give you an idea of what we're doing around here, and then this afternoon we're doing a demonstration and officiating a chess tournament one of the local elementary schools. I hope this is all okay. We weren't expecting you to be here until tomorrow or the day after. We're so glad you're here though!" Florence blinks as they step into the office, still processing all that Freddie had said. Several grey haired men nod a greeting towards her, chuckling to themselves at Freddie's energy,  reminiscing their younger days. Florence's heart tugs. They all remind her so much of Richard. She pushes aside the emotions and turns to face one of the men who rose to greet her, likely the eldest of any of the men there.

"Micheal Sonner. Don't let him scare you off. We're glad to have you. Let us know if you need help with absolutely anything. You look clever though, and wise. I think you'll fit in just fine." He takes on of her hands in both of hers and smiles. He eminates the sort of peace and security Florence always craved as growing up, would still crave today if she let herself. She smiles back, thankful for a friend to watch her back.

"Thank you, Mr. Sonner. I'm delighted to be here." The pats her hand and returns to his desk. Florence turns to Freddie. "So, where do we start?" His face lights up again and she can't help but chuckle with the rest of them.

Chapter Text

Florence unlocks her apartment and drops her bag by the door. Kicking the door shut, she untucks her shirt and flops onto the bed. What a delightfully exhausting day. Reluctantly, she sits back up instead of falling asleep right then and there. She stands, taking off her sweater and button up to hang back up in the closet. Left only in a leotard and skinny jeans, Florence relishes the feel of the cool night air from the open window breezing across her exposed back. She heads into the kitchen and begins to make a cup of tea when she hears a knock at her door. She peers though the peek hole before answering. Freddie. Taking a deep breath, she opens the door to greet him.

"Freddie. Long time, no see." She quirks a smile as he chuckles and looks down at his shoes, hands behind his back. "What are you doing here?" A slight blush rises in his cheeks as he pulls his hands from behind his back, revealing a small bouquet of flowers.

"I brought you flowers. A welcoming gift. And a hope to maybe see you outside of work in the near future." He pauses, something deeper showing in his eyes. "I've missed you, Florence. It's been too long." He extends flowers and hands them to Florence. She looks down at the flowers in her hand, cheeks flushed with embarrassment but a slight smile gracing her lips. She brings her eyes up to meet his and is

"Come on in. I was just making a cup of tea. Would you care for one?" Compliments have flustered Florence for as long as she can remember. For years they were only given when something was wanted of or from her. She steps aside to let Freddie in and shuts the door behind him. He stands, looking around her apartment as she heads towards the kitchen. "Thank you for the flowers. They're absolutely lovely." Florence's heart sinks as she hears his gasp. Damn. Before yesterday, the last time Freddie had seen her, she'd been bleeding out in his arms. He never saw what actual damage had been done.

"Florence...." There's raw brokenness in his voice as he walks up behind her. She steadies her shaky hands against the counter in front of her. "Is that...?" She hangs her head.

"Yes. That's the scar from my last day with the Aleskis." His fingers tremble as he brushes her long hair aside, taking in the full length of the raised, angry, white scar nearly ten inches long, diagonally between Florence's delicate shoulder blades. Gently, cautiously, he raises his hand to touch it. With a slight twitch of a nod, Florence allows Freddie permission. His fingers run down and back along the full length of the scar, feeling, learning. He tries to comprehend everything behind the scar, but knows he'll never come close. "I'm..." Florence's voice cracks. She takes a deep breath and starts again, turning to face Freddie. Tears glisten in her eyes. "I'm sorry I left. I'm sorry I never contacted you. I'm sorry I never made sure you were okay. I'm sorry I never thanked you for everything. I'm sorry I never let you know how much you meant to me. I'm sorry I never told you how you were the one redeeming aspect of that hellhole. I'm sorry--" Freddie's lips collide into hers, halting all further speech. Florence stiffens in surprise, then melts into his touch. Her hands tighten into fists against his chest. One of his hands tangles itself in her silky soft hair, the other arm winding around her waist, drawing her nearer to him. At least they release. Freddie leans his forehead down to touch Florence's.

"I've been waiting nine long years to do that." He wipes the tears from her cheeks, and her eyes open to pierce into his. Her eyes shine like emeralds, flooded with emotion as she struggles to find words.

"I've missed you too, Freddie."

Chapter Text

A week later, the flowers have begun to wilt but Florence and Freddie's relationship has done nothing but bloom. The cool night air sends chills down Florence's back and she curls closer to Freddie as they sit together on the roof.

"Cold?" Freddie asks, rubbing Florence's back to warm her. She shrugs in response, reluctant to move and end their time close together. "Come on. Let's go inside. I can make you something warm to drink." Florence chuckles and rolls her eyes.

"Freddie, remember what happened last time you tried to make something." He blushes slightly, taking Florence's hands as he helps her to her feet. "Let's go to my apartment. I'll make us tea." She stands on tiptoe to press a gentle kiss to Freddie's lips before tugging him back towards the stairs. Freddie goes complacently, still lovestruck by every one of her kisses. The release hands as Florence opens the door to her apartment and they enter. Over the past week, Freddie's made himself comfortable in her apartment, and she in his. The spark between the adolescent friendship has kindled and grown into so much more. Freddie walks into the kitchen to see Florence pouring water into two mugs to let the tea steep, her hair cascading down her back. He crosses the small room with his large strides, sweeping her hair over one shoulder before wrapping his arms around her thin waist, placing kisses along the exposed back of her neck. She melts into his touch, turning around to take his lips in her own. Tender kisses escalate into uncontrollable fiery passion. She should tell him to go, she thinks. She pushes the thought aside as they both suck in air, breathless between kisses. His hands tangle in her hair, her hands work at his shirt. They pause as his shirt flies off over his head before quickly returning to the sweet taste of the other. Florence's sweater comes off next. He picks her up and she wraps her legs around him as they make their way to her bed. As soon as Florence's feet hit the ground, both sets of pants are removed in a hurry, lips colliding at every given chance. They fall onto the bed, exploring each other in ways they've never known before, their fiery passion leaving no need for light.

Chapter Text

Freddie awakes the next morning, Florence's head upon his chest. A faint grin spreads across his face as he gently pushes her hair out of her face. Florence stirs, but doesn't wake up. The motion of her legs tugs the blanket down slightly, exposing the top bit of Florence's prominent ribcage. Freddie's brows furl in concern. She's so thin. Careful not to wake her, Freddie eases Florence's head off his chest and onto a pillow as he slips out of bed. Tugging on some pants and his rumpled shirt, he make his was to the kitchen. After a little digging, he finds the items and ingredients to make pancakes. There was barely any food in the kitchen. No wonder Florence was so thin. Freddie turns the stove on, crossing his fingers he can actually make one thing without burning it. Soon the scent of pancakes fills the small apartment and Florence wanders into the kitchen.

"So you can cook." Florence's sleepy, astonished tone has an innocence to it that makes Freddie want to wrap her in his arms and never let go. She's touched that he made the effort and went to the trouble, not to mention the fact that he didn't burn anything.

"Good morning, gorgeous."  Turning off the stove top, Freddie crosses the small kitchen and claims Florence's lips with his own. "Come on. Let's eat."  They grab the pancakes and head to the roof. They reach the top and cross the roof to their usual spot. Florence sits with the same grace she always carries, a grace Freddie loves and longs to know more about. "So tell me about dancing." She turns to look at him, wide green eyes surprised, yet calm.

"Wow. You're not afraid to toss a tough one in the morning." He shrugs in response and leans over to press a kiss to her jaw. "Let's see. I took lessons throughout most of my child hood, sans the time spent with one family." Despite her attempt to maintain a neutral expression, Freddie catches the brief flash of pain.

"The Aleskeis." She looks down, her long dark hair falling in front of her face.

"Yes. I then continued dancing through my senior year of high school, then danced on my own recreationally since." The silence holds words left unspoken. Florence wishes to leave it at that, while Freddie yearns to know more.

"You still dance?" Florence's eyes change, the walls she's built up drop, the calm controlled neutrality shifts to a peace filled with energy.

"I do. On my own. I haven't taken lessons in years. But I still have my shoes. Still bring them out on a somewhat regular basis. I love it." A question flashes across Florence's face, before she nods to herself.

"Can I see you dance sometime?" Freddie regrets his question as soon as it leaves his mouth. All of Florence's wall come flying back up. Her stoic demeanor returns.

"No. And we should be finishing up. We have work in less than two hours." Florence stands, gathering breakfast. She reaches for the plate of pancakes near Freddie and he grabs her thin wrist.                                    

"Florence, wait. We have plenty of time before work. You didn't even finish one pancake." She looks at him, hardened emerald eyes meeting confused, hurt blue ones.

"You're the one who brought up ballet."

Chapter Text

"You're the one who brought up ballet."

Flames of pain and regret and brokenness and anger burn in Florence's emerald eyes. Freddie stills, stunned, and Florence takes the moment to jerk her wrist away. She takes off across the roof, halfway to the stairs by the time Freddie scrambles to his feet.

"Florence, wait!" He calls as he chases after her, but she's too quick. How was he to know he was bringing up a subject so raw? Freddie stands and knocks on her apartment door for what feels like ages. A few neighbors come out and stare, but Florence refuses to answer the door. Eventually he gives up, purely for the sake of getting to work on time. When he arrives, Florence is already there, early as usual. She sits at her desk, a brick wall of emotions hidden behind the polite mask. He refuses to make eye contact with Freddie for the entire day, let alone meet him for their stolen kisses in the break room under the premise of getting coffee. Shortly before time to leave, Freddie returns from the break room to find a note on his desk. We need to talk. 7pm. My place. Florence's handwriting flows across the page. She didn't sign it because she knew she didn't need to. Even if he didn't recognize her handwriting, hers is the only one's in the office that's entirely legible. He looks over at her desk, but her head is down, bent over pages of game notes she analyzes so well. He sighs and returns to his work. Only two and a half hours.

The clock crawls by until it finally reaches seven o clock. Florence opens the door before Freddie is even finished knocking. She steps back to permit him entrance to her apartment, greeting him with formality rather than a usual kiss. "I'm sorry. I overreacted this morning. You stepped on a nerve you didn't know was there. I was unfair to you and I apologize." Her thin arms hug her narrow waist. She's obviously uncomfortable. She hates this talk but knows it's necessary. Through the hurt, Freddie sees that she still trust him, still loves him. Otherwise he wouldn't be standing in her apartment now.

"It's okay, Florence. I should have known to stop. I shouldn't have pushed you to talk." Florence shakes her head and motions for him to follow her into the living area.

"No. You were fine. I was....I don't know what I was. Dancing was, and to some extent still is, a huge part of my life. I began dance lessons when I was staying with my very first foster family. They thought it would help with social integration, seeing as how I was five and coming clear across the ocean. I didn't understand English, but I understood dance, and I understood music. I was good too. I was lean from captivity and worked as hard as I could to do as well as I could. A lot of the other girls hated me for it." She sits on the floor, tugging a scrapbook into her lap with pictures to match her stories. At seven years old, Florence appears to have had more poise than Freddie has today. "I got older, I moved families. It was the same story at each school. New girl comes in and shows up all the others. It's not like I tried to be better than them. I just tried to be better than myself." Freddie stays silent, listening to the story and he learns about the woman he loves. "Middle school. I didn't hit puberty until high school. The other girls hated me for that too. I stayed little girl thin longer than they did. Ah. Here we go. The second half of my sophomore year. I began to dance again as rehab, real simple stuff. I put on weight in the hospital. They said I was healthy. I hated it. I tried to lose weight, ended up gaining weight. In the mean time I'm also struggling with severe depression, not to be unexpected, considering what all happened, but that didn't make it any easier. Junior and senior year were hell. The teacher hated me. I hated me. It was a mess. A year after I graduated, I saw a dance performance, and something inside of me ached to be dancing again, and so I did. Never with a school like I did before, but on my own, I learned to love it again." Florence flips the last page in the scrapbook and turns to look at Freddie. He pushes her hair back from her beautiful face and catches her hand, squeezing it in a silent thank you. He hesitates, opening his mouth, then shutting it, wrestling with his next question.

"Will you ever tell me what did happen after that afternoon?"

Chapter Text

"Will you ever tell me what did happen after that afternoon?"

Florence stares at Freddie, her gaze calculating and exhausted. She takes a deep breath and looks away. "I died on the table." Freddie's jaw drops, already regretting what he asked. He's not sure he can handle hearing it. "That knife poked some vital things inside of me. I was in the hospital for about a week before I left to go home with a new foster family. Well, sort of family. She wasn't your typical family unit but she was the best family I had. Evá was a nurse, which is part of the reason I got to stay with her even though she wasn't married. She helped me to heal and worked with me on regaining strength. Then one night almost a year after I moved in with her, I came home from dance to find her crying. Not little tears, heart wrenching sobs. I still don't know the details of what happened. Someone bad had come back into her life. Someone she used to know, used to be very close with. My heart broke for her. Two days later I came home from school and..." Florence stops. Not a single tear has been shed, all her emotions are closed off. "She wasn't supposed to be home yet. She was supposed to be at work. But she wasn't. I came home and found her passed out, covered in bruises, barely breathing. I called 911. They came and took both of us away, her to a hospital and me to a new family. I never found out what happened to her." Freddie struggles to find words to comfort Florence in the moment of silence. She shakes her head and resumes the story. " Anyways, I stayed with another family throughout the end of high school. They were better than the Aleskeis, I guess. They were consumed with portraying the perfect family unit. Dad works eight to five, mom stays at home, two biological children, a boy and a girl, perfect in every way. They insisted that I continue dancing, although it was hell. They allowed me to go through training and get a job as a nurses aide at one of the local nursing homes. I loved it. It was like having an entire hall full of grandparents. I began working my way through college and was kicked out of their house the moment I turned eighteen. I had a rare weekend off in May and attended a chess tournament, where Richard found me. He ignored the fact that I was so young and admired my hard work and dedication. He helped me to get a scholarship through a chess foundation that covered all of my tuition. I was able to focus on studies and work for him. I could never thank him enough, I just hope to be able to pass on his kindness some day." The slight smile that spread across her face falls as she remembers the initial question. "That's me since that day. The part that scared me most was...had I not stepping in front, he would've killed you." The first tear trails down Florence's cheek. Freddie cups her cheek in his hand, wiping her tears with his thumb. She hadn't been afraid of dying and being shocked back to life; she was terrified that she'd have lived while he died. He tugs her close to him, wrapping his arms around her narrow shoulders while the heartbreak of the past nine years flows anew.

Chapter Text

Stone cold. Stone cold. You see my standing but I'm dying on the floor. Florence presses her palms into the kitchen counter as she stretches over her pointe. It's been too long since she's danced en pointe and her arches are feeling it. It's been a week since she bared her soul to Freddie. A week since they've spoken. Three days since she saw him last, as well. Not that Freddie cared. She needed time though. Time to think, time to work though her emotions. Not that there's been many. In the days since talking to Freddie, Florence had felt...numb. She can feel the pressure of emotions building up inside of her, like a dam about to break, but everything feels...flat. The music carries her away, the melody blending with her feet, a melody physically expressed. Stone cold. Stone cold. You're dancing with her, while I'm staring at my phone. All the pent up emotions of the past few days come flooding out as the music reaches somewhere inside Florence that little else can. The door opens and closes, but Florence is captivated by the music and doesn't realize it. I was your amber, but now she's your shade of gold. Tears flow down Florence's face as the music resonates within her soul. Freddie could never love her anymore. She's too broken. Too messy. But she shared her mess with him. She can only hope he doesn't share her secrets with anyone else. Don't want to be stone cold, stone. The song fades into silence and Florence stands still, eyes closed, tears rolling down her face.

"That was...beautiful." Freddie's voice sticks in his throat as the intensity of emotion in Florence's dancing grabs his heart like a fist. She whirls around, hair flying.

"Freddie." She doesn't move any closer to him, just turns slightly to try and wipe the evidence of tears off her pale face. "What are you doing now here? How long have you been here?"

"Not long. Just..." Florence crosses her arms and fixes Freddie with a state. He squirms under her sharp gaze. "Long enough."  He stares at the ground as she runs a hand through her hair, both trying to get a grip on their emotions.

"That was private, Freddie." Her voice is soft but clear. He wasn't meant to see her dance.

"I'm sorry. I...missed you." Florence lets out a chuckle of disbelief.

"Really? Of course. Ignoring someone for a straight week after they spilled their guts to you is always a clear indication of missing someone." Her eyes are dull, disappointed, but not surprised. As if she'd been expecting it all along. As if he's just another reminder why she doesn't trust people.

"Florence, I...." She refuses to drop her gaze as he struggles to find the words. "I needed time to think. I thought of you every day for nine years, and now you're back. My heart is moving faster than my brain can comprehend. I love you more than I can say. You fill the hole in my heart that's been empty for longer than I can remember. I can't imagine life without you anymore. I'm so sorry about this past week. I wanted to come sooner but I told myself I had to wait, that you needed space and I needed to make sure...to make sure this was right. That we were right. I never actually asked you...Florence, would you do me the honor of being my girlfriend?" Florence's mind spins. She thought he was leaving her, not preparing to make a commitment. She's never dated before, never done anything intimate before Freddie and not much along the lines of romance. He loves me. He wants to be with me. The lack of food over the course of the past week combined with physical and emotional over exertion catches up to Florence. A small smile spreads across her face as she comprehends what Freddie has said, before her endurance gives out and unconsciousness welcomes her.

Chapter Text

"Florence...Florence, wake up." Consciousness returns with a pounding headache and Florence opens her groggy eyes to see Freddie holding her in his arms, looking down at her in obvious worry. She sits up and the world spins. The warmth of Freddie's hand on her back steadies her.

"What happened?" Florence tries to clear her head.

"Well, I asked you to be my girlfriend, and then you passed out." Ah. A small smile spreads across Florence's face. She leans up to press a small kiss on his chiseled jawline.

"I'd love to be your girlfriend, Freddie." She leans into his chest, content to fall asleep right there. Her head is throbbing but her heart is happy. The pain of the past week doesn't seem to matter in light of Freddie's recent confession. Freddie gives a small smile as he strokes her hair, but his eyes are still flooded with concern.

"Hey....are you feeling alright?" Florence smiles into his chest.

"I'm wonderful. My best friend just asked me to be his girlfriend." He chuckles briefly then returns to the subject at hand.

"Florence, you just passed out. That's not normal?" Florence gives a small sigh before answering. She's not proud of what she has to say.

"When I get stressed, I forget to eat. It's not a big deal. I'm sorry you had to see that though, and I'm sorry about my impeccable timing." She scoffs at herself as he shrugs.

"What were you stressed about?" Florence avoids his eyes and tension returns to her face. Then it dawns on Freddie. "Oh.....oh. Was it...me?...I'm sorry, Florence." She shakes her head at his apology.

"Don't be. I overreacted. You haven't anything to be sorry about. Really." Without the contagious grin on her face, Freddie takes on how rough Florence looks. Dark bags beneath her eyes stand out on her pale skin. She lays her head back against his chest, closing her eyes. He scoops her up like a child and carries her to the bed. Laying her down gently, he covers her with a blanket and presses a kiss to her forehead. Freddie stands in the doorway for a moment, watching her sleep, before flipping the light off and closing the door behind him.

Three-quarters of an hour later, Florence awakes to a familiar scent she can't quite place. She sits up in bed just as Freddie the bedroom carrying a bowl.

"Oh good. You're awake. I have food for you." He sits on the edge of the bed facing her and hands her the bowl. Tears spring to Florence's eyes.

"You made my dad's soup." She looks up at Freddie, her heart full with each display of intimate care and love. He gives her a small, peaceful smile and encourages her to eat. He'd looked through her recipe box in hopes of finding a recipe within his limited cooking ability and found one card that stood out from the rest. Older than the rest by fifteen years, cramped and angular handwriting filled this card instead of Florence's flowing script. The recipe is written in Hungarian, at least that's what Freddie presumes it is. The only words he could understand were on the back of the card, part in a child's handwriting. Apu and Florence. This was what he had to make, no matter how hard it might be. Watching Florence savor every bite, finish the entire bowl with a smile on her face, it was all worth it.

Chapter Text

"Freddie! You're going to be late!" The gathering of old men chuckle at the way the fiesty young woman can keep their rising player in line like no one else. Today they head to an inner city elementary school, leading a mock chess tournament. Their hope is to get the kids interested in chess early and help lessen drug abuse and crime rates in their junior high and high school years. Finally, Freddie joins Florence and they race down the stairs to catch the city bus. They hop off at the stop closest to the elementary school and walk the remaining block and a half. Freddie bounces on his toes as Florence talks to secretary. Minutes later, they head to the gymnasium where half a dozen long lunch tables are set up with four chess boards on each. The number of entrants surprised and delighted their organization. Kids begin to flood the room and Freddie chuckles to himself as Florence blends in with the older kids. Sporting the event tee shirt and jeans, and standing no taller than the oldest contestants, Florence is uninimidating and inviting to the young chess players.  Boys outnumber the girls many times over. Freddie watches as she picks up one of the smallest players and sits her on a chair meant for someone much bigger than her. The little girl flashes a toothless grin at Florence as she walks off. Florence joins him at the side of the gym to observe and nods to the men in button up shirts standing discreetly by the door.

"They're officiants from the Chess League of Northern New Jersey. They're here to watch and then have requested to talk to you afterwards." Florence looks up at Freddie with wide-eyes hesitation. They hadn't said what they'd like to talk about.

"Tell them we'd be delighted to talk to them. It'll be fine, Florence. Today is going to be a wonderful day." He gives her s reassuring smile and glances down at his watch. Go time. Freddie picks up the microphone and they introduce themselves, giving a little bit of information about the tournament before wishing the kids good luck and a good game. Four rounds later, Florence comes up to Freddie with a proud little smile on the face.

"See the little year one girl over there?" Florence motions to the young girl she had helped onto a chair earlier. "She just beat a year five student. And he wasn't too shabby." Florence walks off to help another student as Freddie grins at her enthusiasm, especially for helping the underdog. Many hours later, a year five boy emerges victorious as the school champion. Freddie sees Florence give the year one girl a hug, congratulating her on making it to the second to last round of the tournament. The gymnasium clears until it's Florence, Freddie, and the two official looking men. Freddie gives Florence's hand a subtle squeeze before the cross the gym to the men by the door.

"Mr. Trumper." Freddie shakes their hands and thanks them for coming. "Could we have some privacy?"

"Miss Vassy is my second, both in competition and in the work force. It is my wish that she remain with us."

"Very well. We would like you to compete in our upcoming tournament. Word of your skill and contributions to the chess world  is spreading fast. We admire your use of chess for the betterment of society." The men's stoic demeanor contrasts Freddie's barely contained excitement.

"Wow...wow! I'd love to compete. Thank you for all of your generous words. Just let me know when and where and I'll be there for sure!" There's a new spark in Freddie's eyes as a dream comes true. Professional competition...Freddie had hoped to make it some day, but not for many years to come. The men leave Freddie with a paper containing information about the tournament and the gift of his entrance fee being waived. As soon as the men are out of sight, Freddie grabs Florence around the waist and twirls her around. Her feet meet the ground and their lips collide in fiery passion and excitement. "Florence...we're competing professionally. Professionally! This isn't little local competitions for charity. This is the real deal!" His excitement is contagious and Florenfe can't help but smile back.

"Freddie, I know it is. I told you you'd make it someday. I'm so proud of you." Her arms encircle his waist as he kissed the top of her head.

"No, Florence. We made it."

Chapter Text

Florence holds her breath as she watches the endgame between Freddie and his opponent, the game in nearly the same exact position as the one between Freddie and Mr. Drill all those years ago. Two possible moves. One victorious, the other fatal. Freddie hesitates, then chooses wisely. Florence lets out her breath and stifles a grin. The game isn't over yet, but she's confident in Freddie's success. A few short minutes later, Freddie is named chess champion of the New England region. The past months have been filled with chess tournaments, Freddie sweeping the boards at each. With each win, the anticipation grows, the nervous excitement. Freddie always knows there's a possibility he could lose and turns it into motivation to win. Freddie holds Florence's hand as they follow the officials to where their picture will be taken for the records. Once everything is over, the officials disappear and the place is bare aside from a few stragglers. They turn the corner and Freddie stops in his tracks, pulling Florence closer to him. A strong but gentle arm encircles her waist while his other hand weaves into her hair, cupping where her neck meets her head. Florence closes her eyes as their lips meet in a flood of passion. The kiss tastes of love and devotion and passion and peace. The break apart for breath.

"Happy one year, my champion. I'm so proud of you." Freddie looks into Florence's eyes and sees all he had missed as a child. Love, commitment, someone who he's not their second choice, third, fourth, last. A relationship with depth and promise, not surface level promises meant to be broken. Florence sees someone true, someone with whom she can be herself, someone she doesn't have to be strong for. He draws her into his arms, savoring the perfect way she fits under his chin, the way her arms wrap around him, holding tight as if to say she'll never let him go. Somewhere in a nearby hallway, a vacuum starts, drawing Freddie and Florence back to the present, back to the real world. The walk outside, hand in hand. Florence nudges Freddie and points to a sign a little ways up the sidewalk. "Look, there's a cable car stop. There's one right by the hotel too. It'll take us right there." Freddie tenses and his palm grows sweaty in Florence's.

"Um, it's not too far. How about we just walk?" Concern fills Florence's eyes as she looks at Freddie.

"Alright. Is everything okay?" Freddie swallows hard, decades old pain in his eyes. He stares ahead or at the sidewalk, avoiding Florence's gaze.

"When we get further away from people." They follow the sidewalk out of the center of town to the more sparsely populated area on the outskirts. "I used to live near a cable car station, with my mom and dad. I was about nine years old. I liked chess more than sports. I wasn't the most masculine of kids, but I was nine years old. Anyways, my dad thought I was gay, and no son of his was going to be a fag." The words come straight from his father's mouth. Florence hears the disdain in his voice, the pain still fresh after all these years. "I loved the cable cars. I loved looking out the car window at the trees below. One night, my dad asked if I wanted to go on the cable car with him. I was so excited. I thought maybe he finally liked me for once." Florence reaches over and wipes a tear from Freddie's cheek, struggling to hold back her own at the intense emotion before her. "We were alone in the car. He said if I was gay he'd give me what I liked. I tried to tell him I wasn't gay, but he wouldn't listen. I tried to stop him but I was too small, not strong enough." Freddie takes a deep breath and squeezes his eyes shut. His words barely come out as a whisper, full of shame and hurt and dreams that have long since died. "My own father raped my in that cable car." Florence doesn't try to stop the tears rolling down her face. To be carrying this pain for so long....her heart breaks for him. Freddie opens his eyes again, a flat sadness overtaking any other emotion. "My mother didn't believe me. I couldn't tell my friends, the teachers at school. I was too scared, too ashamed." He turns to Florence. "You're the first person I've told in eighteen years." Florence nods, too choked up to say anything. Something inside Freddie feels a little less broken at the sight of her care and compassion for him. That day he'd sworn never to let anyone close enough to hurt him again. His head begs him to listen and save himself from any future hurt that may come, but his heart throws caution to the wind as he steps forward and envelops Florence in his arms. Her tears soak his shirt as his soak her hair. While everyone else told him not to cry, Florence shares his tears.

Chapter Text

Florence's skin crawls as she struggles not to pace, repeatedly scratching the wrist bone of her right arm without even realizing it. Her legs cramp with the need to expend energy. The players in front of her have entered the endgame. Florence hardly noticed. She fights to keep the world around her from spinning. The game ends, the tournament is declared over until the next day, and the players disperse. Florence's hands shake as she methodically puts away the many chess sets around the room. She sweeps the large room and takes out the trash, seeking physical busy work to occupy the nervous energy flooding through her. With everything clean, Florence leans back against the wall, breathing heavily. Anxiety clenches her lungs tight. No matter how deep of a breath she tries to take, it never feels like there's enough air to suffice. Dammit, why can’t I get control of myself? Florence mentally berates herself as the edges of her vision begin to blacken and she lowers herself onto the gymnasium floor. She vaguely hears footsteps and struggles to her feet, her vision blurred. It’s only Freddie.

“Florence, are you alright?” He grasps her upper arms gently as not to hurt her, yet firm enough to keep her from falling. Freddie disregards her nod as he takes in her pale pallor and the way her thin chest expands and deflates as she gasps for breath. He lowers them to the floor, siting beside Florence as he tucks her head between her knees and soothingly rubs her back. Slowly, the panic begins to ebb and deep breathes fill Florence’s lungs with oxygen once again. She sits up, closing her eyes against the bright lights, head pounding. Freddie puts an arm around her shoulder and she leans into him, finding comfort in his solid presence. She’s so tired. “Are you okay?” Florence nods into Freddie’s chest at his soft question. “What’s going on, Florence?” She gives a slight shrug. All she wants to do is sleep and forget anything ever happened. Freddie gives her a slight shake to make sure she’s still with him. “Hey, what’s wrong?” She debates burrowing further into his chest but knows he won’t stop until she gives him an answer.

“I’ve been in the beginning stages of a panic attack for a week-ish, getting progressively worse.” Freddie remains silent, waiting for more of an answer. “The first thing that happens when I start towards a panic attack is I lose my ability to breathe properly. It’s like getting half a breath’s worth of air every time I take a breath. From there I grow more and more agitated, until it’s finally over. The climactic point of a panic attack can be as mild as what you saw to….it’s not pleasant.” Florence goes quiet again, pondering, worrying. Freddie tries to comprehend….mild? “The only thing that worries me is….I don’t know what’s causing all this. There’s no real reason I’m stressed or panicked. I couldn't tell you what I'm panicking about. I’ve been running like I know I ought to. Less coffee, more tea….I’ve been doing everything that’s always worked.” Freddie barely hears her last uttered statement. “I don’t want to go back on medication.” He runs his fingers through her hair and she drops her head back into his chest, absolutely exhausted and feeling more than a little beaten down and defeated. Freddie breaks the silence to pry a little deeper, to solve the problem a little more. He hates seeing Florence like this.

“Do you have medication?” In all of the time they’ve known each other, Freddie never knew Florence had ever been on any sort of mental health medication. Now that he knows though, he still doesn’t think any less of her.

Florence nods. “Back at my apartment.”

“I know you don’t want to, but do you think it’d help?” She shrugs, noncommittal. “What if you tried it again for a week, to help you get back on track?” Florence weighs the odds in her mind. He’s right. It’s a good, logical idea despite how much she hates it.

“I guess.” Freddie eases Florence away from him and stands up. She looks up at him with the wide eyes of a child, though more tired and worried than any child should ever be. Freddie wonders how much of a childhood Florence actually had, if hers was anymore substantial than his. He stretches out his hands and helps Florence to her feet. The corner of his mouth quirks up in a smile.

“Want a piggy back ride?” The corners of Florence’s mouth twitch like she’s trying to smile, but too exhausted for it to actually work. At the very least, her face looks a little less drawn, a little less down, a little more open. Freddie turns around and Florence grabs onto his shoulders, jumping slightly to wrap her legs around Freddie’s waist. She tucks her head into the crook of his neck, hair cascading over his shoulder, hiding her face.

Chapter Text

Florence sits atop the tall apartment building watching the glorious sunrise. A slight breeze sends a chill through her bones. The breeze, or maybe the thoughts in her head. She unfolds her right hand, displaying a small, white pill in her pale palm. Eyes squeezed shut, Florence tosses it back with a swig of coffee. Two weeks of consistent medication, more or less. Nothing feels better, nothing feels worse. There is….nothing. She can plaster on a smile with the best of them, but inside Florence longs to feel something, anything. Freddie has been so distant lately. Quicker to snap, slower to comfort. The crease between Florence’s eyebrows deepens with concern as she reflects on his behavior. Maybe being a competitive chess player and having a fucked up girlfriend is just too much, too stressful. Florence looks down at her coffee cup, wishing tears would come, rather than this horrid block of emotions. Less sleep, more caffeine. Less laughter, more fake smiles. Less together, more….alone. Florence shakes her head as she rises to return to her apartment. He’s just stressed, and her perspective is skewed. Everything is fine, right?

~  ~  ~  ~

“Florence, where’s that schedule? You said it’d be on my desk.” Freddie snaps at Florence shortly after arriving at the office, first words he’s said to her all morning. The silence on the bus this morning was tense, distant. Florence takes a deep breath, fighting her Mr. Aleski’s voice in her head.

“It’s right here, Freddie.” She crosses to his desk and moves aside a few papers to reveal the demanded schedule. He grabs the papers from her as she does her best not to flinch. Desperately portraying normality, Florence returns to her desk, pity-filled gazed of the older men following her across the room. This is all her fault. She couldn’t keep her shit together and now another relationship is ruined, another friendship down the drain. Her hands shake as she reaches for a pen and paper, studying the chess arrangement in front of her. It’s nothing she hasn’t seen before, nothing she hasn’t used before, and her mind wanders. Memories overtake conscious thought, analyzing and reanalyzing everything from the past few weeks. Was there anything before that night after the tournament? Did she cause this? Of course she did. Of course it's her fault. If she hasn't been such a mess, he'd be treating her better. If she'd pushed away her own problems and helped him, everything would be fine now. But it's not fine. Every day she shrinks a little more inside.  All these people around, and yet she still feels so incredibly alone.

Chapter Text

There's a knocking at her door. Florence blinks away the fog in her eyes, too tired and sad to cry. She stares at the door a few seconds before there's another knock. Rising from her sitting position on the floor, she moves to open the door as if in a trance. It's Freddie. Florence turns her heart to stone the best she can but not fast enough to stop the twist she feels everytime she looks at him.

"Florence...can I come in?" His voice shocks her. It's...remorseful. It's not the hardened, sharp as a knife voice she's heard all of the past month. She moves to let him past, closing the door behind them. Freddie watches her, the way her posture slumps, the way her hair falls to hide her face, the lack of emotion on her face, the bags beneath her eyes...has she always been this thin? He quickly diverts his eyes as she walks towards him, looking anywhere and everywhere else until finally settling on Florence once again. Her arms are crossed in front of her slim frame, her stance guarded. Dead eyes stare at him, unreadable. "Florence...." God, this was harder than he anticipated. "I'm...I'm sorry." At last, a glimpse of emotion. Then she blinks and it is gone.

"What for, Freddie?" Florence is hesitant to forgive. From past experience, it only leads to getting hurt again later. Her voice sounds tired, even to her. She wonders if he notices.

Freddie takes a deep breath. Better to get everything out at once. "For hurting you. For being distant. For taking out my frustrations on you. You didn't deserve any of that. I've been off the past few weeks or so but I shouldn't have taken it out on you. You deserve better." Freddie crosses the distance between them but she takes a step back, withdrawing further into herself.

Florence shows no emotional reaction to his words, but inside relief and hurt battle for their share of tears. She settles for tapping down any emotion and doing what she can to help. That's what she always been there for. To help, not be helped. "You're fine. You were stressed and dealing with enough on your own. What can I do to help you?" She bottles up everything in her to appear calm, unhurt, and caring. Her arms fall to her sides as one hand runs through her hair.  He moves in again and captures her in a hug. She reluctantly reciprocates the affection enough to escape question, but dies a little inside. They want what they want, and anything you might have to say against that is irrelevant.

Chapter Text

“Freddie? Freddie! It’s time to go!” Florence calls to Freddie from near the door as he struggles with his tie in front of the bathroom mirror.

“I can’t get this tie on straight!” Freddie yells back. Florence joins him and covers his trembling hands with hers, looking him in the eye.

“Hey. Today’s gonna be fine. You’re gonna do great. You’ll wow them all and beat the pants off of everyone you play. You are amazing.” Her rich green eyes convey warmth and sincerity. You wouldn’t have to look carefully to see the exhaustion behind them, the light slowly fading. Three long years of the roller coaster that is Freddie Trumper. A tempered explosion one day, kind and caring the next. But he is worth it, Florence thinks to herself, a small smile on her face. Someone loves her. Sure, it can be rough, but isn't that life? What is love without loss?  The way his smile lights up his face, the passion with which he pursues chess…it all evens out, for the most part at least. His tie is straight, and she pulls herself out of her thoughts. Hand in hand, they head out the apartment door, across the street, and to the bus stop two blocks away. Freddie is focused on the game, Florence introspective. Her smile fades, only appearing when she catches him looking. She’s tired…so tired. This tournament is the last big one for a while. Things will get better. They have to.

* * * *

“Florence? Baby we won. Heh. I won.” Florence eases Freddie through the apartment door, holding tight to his waist with his other arm draped across her shoulders. She hates the post-tournament tradition of having a few drinks together. Well, not entirely. The camaraderie with the other players is fun and lively, but they leave and Freddie keeps on drinking. Shot after shot after shot. He won’t remember any of it in the morning. That part she savors. No need for a front to hide her sad, numb exhaustion when he’s this drunk.

“Yes, Freddie. You won. Just like you always do. You’re an amazing chess player.” She eases him down onto her bed, swinging his legs up and covering him with the blankets.  He doesn’t protest too much tonight, thankfully. Florence tugs a chair to the bedside, stroking his hair as he rambles on.

“Yeah, I am. I’m great. I’m the best.” He looks up at her, blinking often as he fights sleep. “I love you, Florence.” A soft glimmer of a smile crosses her face. It’s been so long since she’s heard those words. If only he still meant them, if only he wasn’t saying it because he was drunk. In the time she takes to savor the brief, delightful acknowledgement, Freddie’s drifted off to sleep, his breathing smooth and regular. He’s alright. Quietly, Florence rises, leaving him to sleep as she shuts the bedroom door behind her. Finally all alone, the world weighs down upon Florence’s slim shoulders. The bags beneath her eyes seem more pronounced. She makes a cup of tea and takes a seat in front of the window. Is this what she came here for? She can see for miles out of the upper story windows, the lights of the city decorating view. The possibilities are endless. What was once a dream, partnering with someone who’d meant so much to her, and who she’d meant so much do. Breaking waves, breaking stereotypes, all while doing what she’s always been most passionate about. Chess. But now it’s…nothing like what it was. It’s stress, it’s drinking, it’s hyper analyzing because the best is never good enough. It’s taking on Freddie’s burdens while ignoring her own. Putting his comfort over her needs. And in return for what? A kind word here and there, particularly when he’s drunk? Rage and frustration at the world taken out on her because she’s around? Is the passion worth the pain?

Chapter Text

1979 Merano

 

A beautiful brunette sits with her back at the bar, thin as a rail and eyes full of fear. A dark haired man several seats down watches her as she watches the blond man in the middle of the dance floor. Dark shadows stand out beneath her eyes as her drawn face seems devoid of emotion. Something about her intrigues the man and he closes the distance of several empty seats, easing into the one right next to her. She casts a brief glance his way before focusing again on the blond.

“Hey.” His deep, soothing voice brings her full attention to him for the first time and he feels he could drown in the emeralds in her eyes.

“Hi.” If he hadn’t been listening carefully, he would have missed the soft spoken syllable. Her eyes glance back away from him and their absence cuts to his soul. ‘Eyes are the windows to the soul,’ so everyone says. Hers pierce through him with a depth and intensity he’s never known. She returns to watching the blond dancing around and her necklace glints with one of the lights.

“Are you here for the chess tournament?” He hopes he kept the excitement out of his voice but doubts he succeeded completely.

“Yes.” Another glance, another syllable. Could be a long night for both of them.

“Spectator?” He queries her reason for being here, knowing he’d have remembered if he’d seen a female on the list of competitors.

“Second.” So she plays. He wonders if she’s good. Some seconds are management without any skill. She could certainly be second for eye candy but he hopes she can play. Maybe she’d grant him the chance to find out.

“American?” He takes a guess based on her accent, which is then confirmed by her brief nod. Wow. Second to his primary competitor. The other games taking place this week are primarily for entertainment, while the game between the russian and american would determine this year’s world chess champion. He extends his hand as he introduces himself. “Anatoly Sergievsky.” Her gaze turns to him again, sharp as a whistle as she gives him a clear once over.

“Florence Vassy.” She angles her knees a little more towards him, still keeping one eye on the dance floor.

“Is this your first time at the world championships?” Common ground, a good starting place, he hopes. Following her gaze to the blond, Anatoly guesses the current years championships aren’t the best topic.

“No. We attended five years ago as spectators, three years ago we returned for the outlying games, and last year for the tournament. What about you, Mr. Sergievsky?” She hides behind a wall of formality in her answers. Concise words and a stoic expression concealing any thoughts and feelings on the matters.

"Please, call me Anatoly. I was here four years ago and then again two years ago for outlying games. This is the most beautiful site I've been to by far though." He attempts to reassure her with a smile but his last statement seems to have brought up even more walls.

“Merano is gorgeous.” Florence’s legs intertwine tighter and her thin arms come to hug herself. She’s clearly in some sort of…pain? discomfort? nervous state? Anatoly can only guess what goes on behind the steel walls she’s built up inside. The fact that they are there, however, is a clear indicator that something is not okay, past, present, or both.

“The mountains are beautiful. There’s a little coffee shop not too far up the way. Would you care for a game?” Her eyes blink fiercely in response to his hesitant question. She looks straight ahead, eyes open wide, breathing shaky and shallow.

“No.” She pauses, dragging in a slow, shaky breath. “I’m sorry. I…can’t.” Florence becomes entranced in her water bottle, untangling her arms to fiddle with the lid.  Huh. Oh…..oh. Somebody has to stay sober. She watches her lap as he watches the blond for a moment.

“That’s fine. No worries.” He offers a smile and she turns to him, blinking slowly in response. He leans back against the bar, reaffirming his presence. She takes in his casual slouch and the taut line of her shoulders eases slightly. Taking a deep breath and a chance, she leans down for the black bag beside the barstool.

“If you’d like though, I have a board and we can play here.” His smile is worth the risk, and quite possibly the consequence. Freddie is too smashed out of his mind to notice her, per usual. Even with one eye on the game and one eye on the blond, Florence holds her own against Anatoly. Admittedly, he could've been more focused on the board and less focused on his opponent, but it’s a game for fun, not for competition. For half an hour, Anatoly truly enjoys himself for the first time in ages, and Florence finally relaxes a bit. Then it all comes crashing down. The blond man Florence has been watching all evening stumbles over to the bar, slinging an arm around her shoulder.

“Babe, there’s some really hot girls here. Wanna try a threesome?” Heat flushes to Florence’s cheeks as she hastily begins gathering the chess pieces and board, maneuvering the best she can around most of his body weight flung on her thin frame.

“Freddie, you have a meeting tomorrow. And then the pre-tournament matches. You need to rest.” Belongings back in the black cross back bag slung across her back, Florence grabs Freddie’s wrist with one hand and his waist with the opposite arm, assisting him to stand. As they leave the bar, Florence throws an apologetic look back to Anatoly. He meets her eye, offering a small smile and nod in return. The smile slips from his lips as soon as her back is turned again. What is going on in the american chess team? And when will he next see the beautiful second?

Chapter Text

“No, Freddie. Please don’t do that.” Florence pushes his hand away wearily.

“But Florence. You looove me.” He leans in again, aiming for a kiss and reaching for her rear. The stench of alcohol fills her nostrils and she turns away.

“Freddie. You’re drunk. Come on, let’s get you to bed.” She guides him to the bed and he stumbles along. Who knew helping a drunk in what is supposed to be their physical prime could involve so much of the same actions as caring for the elderly, Florence ponders ironically. Freddie leans his head onto the pillow as she swings his legs up into bed. She tugs the covers up over him and he grabs the collar of her sweater.

“Come on, babe. Let’s have some fun. I bet you’d look super hot without all those stupid layers you wear now. Remember when you used to take them off? Do it again.” Florence hates how the alcohol makes Freddie so sex-oriented. Sure, they made love, once upon a time ago. When they were both sober and the air was rife with passion. Back when they loved each other. Florence untangles her collar from Freddie’s fingers, standing and stepping back once free.

“Not tonight, Freddie. I need to prepare things for tomorrow, and you need to sleep off all that you drank. Go to sleep. I’ll see you tomorrow.” But her voice falls on deaf ears. Freddie has already passed out for the night. Gazing upon his peaceful, sleeping face, Florence recalls the days when they would've stayed up working together, and then she’d have crawled in bed with him, embracing his strong warm figure, feeling safe and whole and loved. As she reaches to turn off the bedside lamp, she catches a glimpse of the ring on her finger. The ring he gave her. Not an engagement ring, per se. They never made things official in that way. A forever ring, he called it. A reminder that she would never be alone again. He’d bought it four years ago for her, when things were still good….most of the time. He had promised things would be better, that they’d get through everything together. But now he searches for the answers to life’s problems at the bottom of an alcohol glass, and she faces her problems alone. Grabbing a candle, pencil, and her planner, Florence heads to the balcony outside their room. The cool night air refreshes her as she lights the candle, going over plans and notes for the next day. Everything should be fine…if Freddie holds his temper, and his tongue, and his liquor. The candle flickers in the night breeze as Florence rubs her face from exhaustion. Everything will be fine, right? It has to be. Exhaustion and weariness fill every fiber of Florence’s being, and yet sleep feels miles away. Her mind wanders back to the chess game at the bar. It was a nice distraction from the environment around her. She could feel Anatoly’s eyes on her the whole game, studying her, not objectifying her as Freddie so often does now. He’s a good player. He’s earned his spot at the top of the circuit, not bought his way there. She does hope they’ll see each other again soon. Freddie wouldn’t approve. Thank goodness Freddie likely won’t remember tonight’s encounter, having been so drunk it’s doubtful he even noticed Anatoly. A fierce shiver wracks through Florence’s small body and she gathers her things to return inside. Crawling into the second bed, she watches Freddie’s sleeping figure, knowing if she has any common sense she won’t see the russian outside of tournament again. What was once love has morphed into a twisted mix of hope, denial, and fear. If only’s roll through Florence’s head as she drifts into a restless sleep.

Chapter Text

“Freddie….Freddie, wake up.” Florence lays a gentle hand on Freddie’s shoulder, prepared to spring away if needed. Freddie has a track record of being far from stable when he awakes with a hangover. “Freddie…” And just like that, he's up, arms flailing like a windmill at what ever and who ever might be inside his mind. The windmill ceases and he at last focuses his gaze on Florence, standing several feet out of reach. “We need to get going soon. There’s a mandatory meeting this morning. “

“You go.” Freddie eases back onto his pillow, head throbbing. Florence lets out a small sigh before responding.

“I am going, Freddie. I’ll be going and paying attention and answering the necessary questions and doing everything that needs done. You just have to show up. If you don’t, you can’t compete.” His eyes open slightly again and he lets out a groan, begrudgingly getting up.

Half an hour later, Freddie and Florence arrive at the small conference room at the convention center where the championship will be held. They sit at their designated table, Florence prepared with notebook and pen, Freddie nursing his coffee and looking murderously in the direction of any loud noises. Anatoly and a shorter, gruffer man enter shortly after them. Alexander Molokov, his name tag says. Anatoly casts a slight smile and nod in her direction and Florence attempts a smile in return, though she's afraid he may not have gotten much more than a grimace. Hopefully Anatoly doesn't mention Freddie’s behavior last night. She studies Molokov; his expression is cruel, calculating, but not smug. He doesn't know. The tension in her shoulders eases a hair and she glances over to Anatoly to find he’s been watching her. This time at least one side of her mouth lifts into a smile. The arbiter and other moderators enter the conference room and the meeting begins. The standard required material drags along. Florence takes notes, nudging Freddie every so often to keep him from falling asleep entirely. Anatoly watches Florence, and Molokov watches everyone, making Florence mighty uncomfortable. Something about his expression unnerves her. At last, they are dismissed. Florence stands, rising on her tiptoes to stretch her legs. Freddie makes a beeline to the bathroom, Molokov not far behind him. Anatoly walks around the conference table, closing the distance between them.

“Good morning, Florence.” He smiles down at her and her heart lifts a little bit. She shakes her head and looks down at her watch.

“For all of the next four minutes, yes, it is morning.” She looks up at him, an amused glint in her tired eyes.

“Still counts,” he says with a grin. “Do you have lunch plans?” His polite forwardness perplexes her. Perhaps everyone is that way behind the iron curtain. She runs a hand through her hair as she struggles to come up with a good answer. Does she have plans? Yes. Is it in her best interests to tell their opponent, a Russian at that, that she plans to spend lunch grabbing a coffee and following Freddie to a bar, making sure he sticks to the bar food and the girls rather getting wasted midday? Probably not.

“Um, kind of. Freddie wants to try the burgers at the bar down the street.” Florence hopes Anatoly doesn't notice the embarrassed flush rising in her cheeks. He takes a deep, understanding breath, nodding slightly as his smile slips.

“I see. You’ll have to let me know how they are.” Over her shoulder, he sees Freddie and Molokav returning from the restroom. “Don’t forget to take some time for yourself, okay?” And with that he’s gone, leaving Florence flustered and touched. She doesn't have time to dwell though, as Freddie catches up with her almost immediately after.

“Were you talking to that red?” Freddie’s accusatory tone and angry eyes cut through any happiness and hope Anatoly had festered.

“Yes, Freddie. Just polite conversation. We’re supposed to be fostering international cooperation, remember?” Freddie lets out a sharp, ironic sigh, as if he can’t believe anyone would be so stupid.

“Florence, he’s a Russian. Nobody likes a soviet, Let alone someone let orphaned by the reds. I would think you’d know that.” His words cut to her heart at the mention of her parents. Over twenty years later and the pain has only dulled, not lessened or gone away. Freddie briskly heads toward the exit and Florence follows with her head held high, pain and exhaustion hidden from the outside world.

Chapter Text

Florence eases the door of the coffee shop open, stepping inside as her eyes dart between each of the patrons. At last they land on the dark haired man in the back corner, sipping coffee as he studies the chess board in front of him. Anatoly. Her lithe figure slips easily through the crowd to the table where he is seated, so absorbed in his thoughts that her quiet presence does not register. “Mr. Sergievsky.” He looks up and breaks into a smile.

“Florence. How great to see you again. Please, have a seat.” She sits across the table, pulling a thermos of coffee out of her bag.

“Sorry this is so unexpected. I took a chance on finding you here and wondered if you’d want to have a rematch for the interrupted game last night.” She could lose herself in the depths of his warm brown eyes. They seem to call out to her with a sense of safety, though having only known the man a matter of days, Florence tells herself it must be her imagination.

“Please, don’t apologize. I’m glad you came. If you don’t mind my asking, where’s Mr. Trumper? I don’t believe I’ve seen the two of you apart since the tournament began.” The shuttered look in Florence’s eyes makes Anatoly question his asking. He should have let the subject be and taken the time offered.

“He’s back at the hotel, resting a bit before the games later this afternoon and evening.” Florence hopes her vague almost-truth is believable. If Anatoly isn't intuitive enough to understand Freddie’s still working on sleeping off his hangover, she won’t be the one to tell him. “And Molokov?”

Anatoly’s expression grows firmer and a bit stormy. “He’s doing business.” He takes a deep breath and heaves a sigh. “No matter. Neither of them will be interrupting our game this time.” He smiles slightly at her as they begin to play. Anatoly is good; there’s no question of how he made it to the finals. Freddie is good, but Florence has been able to beat him for years. Not that she does so, regularly at least. She values her well being too much. It’s refreshing to be able to play a well matched game of chess without having to challenge her opponent and still make sure she loses. Anatoly is surprised. With Florence being the second, Anatoly hadn’t expected much of a challenge. Instead he is more engaged that he’s been in quite a while. Florence’s smile is warm and welcoming. Her moves are calculated, strategic, and preemptive. For close to an hour, both players are lost in the game, a welcome escape.

“Checkmate.” Anatoly studies the board, then leans back to look at the first person to best him in over a year. He nods, and smiles.

“Good game. That was wonderful. I haven't had such a challenge in far too long. Thank you.” Florence smiles and looks down, attempting to hide the slight blush rising in her cheeks.

“Thank you, Mr. Sergievsky. It was a pleasure. You’re a very talented player.” He shrugs in response.

“Please, it’s Anatoly. I just love what I do, and want to do justice to such a beautiful game. And no offense, but I've just been bested by my opponent’s second.” At the last statement, Anatoly’s features take on a hint of embarrassment and uncertainty. Florence shakes her head and smiles slightly.

“Don’t worry about it. I’ve been able to beat Freddie for the better part of a decade.” She calmly begins resetting the board while Anatoly stares in awe and confusion.

“Pardon my directness, but why on earth are you his second rather than the other way around?” Florence’s smile grows sad and resigned, having found a twisted humor in the irony.

“This is just the way things are, the way they must be. I get to be around and play the game I love, and that is enough for me.” The board is ready for whoever might play next, and Florence runs her finger longingly across the side. But it is not meant to be. With a quick glance at her watch, Florence stands to leave. “Thank you for the wonderful game, Mr. Serg—Anatoly. I do hope we’ll play again soon. Good luck in your games this evening.”

“Same to you, Florence. Take care.” And she is gone. Florence’s feet feel heavy as she walks the short distance to the cable car stop. In contrast with Anatoly’s caring attention, Freddie seems even more gruff and harsh than she had realized. They’re in it for the long run though…or at least through the end of the championship. If things don’t improve, Florence doesn’t know how much more she can take. When he’s not drunk or hungover, if there is a time anymore, there’s still quite a bit of the Freddie she knew and grew to love. As she clings to the pole in the cable car, Florence studies the way the afternoon sun glints off her ring. “I know forever isn't promised, it isn't certain, but I can tell you I will be here as we find out where forever takes us.” Back then it hadn't just been about winning. It had been about the game. Their relationship hadn't been perfect—nobody’s is—but it had been worth it. The ups and downs and highs and lows had brought them closer. Until….they didn’t. A casual drink turned into being too smashed to remember anything the next morning. But that was the point, wasn’t it? The stress, the pressure to be perfect….Freddie didn’t want to remember. He wanted to forget for hours upon hours, countless women streaming through their hotel rooms as they traveled from competition to competition. Florence learned when to speak up, when to clean up, and when to disappear. And it all just made her tired. Of competing, of Freddie…of life as it was. She’d thought about leaving, but where would she go? And what would become of Freddie? And so she stayed. Again, and again, and again.

Chapter Text

“Florence! Where have you been? I was worried about you.” Freddie crosses the hotel room as Florence enters. She flinches almost imperceptibly as he puts his hands on her upper arms.

“I went into town. You were safe and asleep so I thought I’d go for a walk.” He tilts her chin up to meet her eyes. She searches his for any cloudiness of his beloved drink and finds him completely sober for the first time in…ages. Her shoulders relax a fraction as she steps away from Freddie to set her things down. “Are you ready for the press conference this evening? It’s scheduled between games three and four.” He smiles at her, flashing the devilish smile she used to know all to well.

“Of course. The press loves me! Have you seen the newspapers? I’m everywhere!” She returns a fraction of his smile, relieved at his sobriety and excitement. But oh how she misses the way things used to be. It used to be about the games, not about the publicity. Florence used to be valued for more than just arm candy. Now everything is just expected, demanded, and Florence is valued for nothing. “Look at that! There’s a bit about you in here!” Freddie holds out a newspaper and she reads with him. “‘She stands by her champion, whose demands are so infantile.’ Infantile? Do they know who I am? I’m the world champion!” Florence’s heart sinks.

“Please, Freddie. Keep it together at the conference tonight. You don’t have to agree with them; you just have to make them like you.” Her eyes desperately search his, begging him to understand.

“Florence, you fret too much. Everyone loves me. And when don’t I keep it together? I don’t need your advice. Everything will be fine.” And with that, he’s gone to get ready. Florence sits on the edge of the bed, twisting the ring on her finger, slipping it off, slipping it back on. Things are okay for now, aren't they? And yet she still wants to leave, still feels trapped.

 

  • ~ * ~ *

 

The hotel room door slams and Florence squeezes her eyes shut against the onset of tears. Why can he never listen? For once Florence is glad Freddie is out getting smashed. She’ll clean up the mess tomorrow, just like she always does. Only difference now is that she has to clean up the mess to thousands of people who’d watched and listened to the press conference. Thank goodness the championship games start tomorrow. Hopefully Freddie will focus and the drama will lessen. A deep breath in and out and Florence begins thinking through all that needs to be done. First things first, attempt to maintain peace with the opponent.

Chapter Text

The cool night air rustles through Florence’s hair as she pulls open the door to the coffee shop, hoping Anatoly is there again. She's in luck. A head of unruly dark hair stands out in the back of the shop, occupying the same seat as earlier. Cautiously, nervously, she approaches. “Anatoly?”

He looks up at her, bitter disappointment written across his features. “Miss Vassy.” Her heart sinks at the honorific before her name. Anatoly resumes brooding over the chess board again. Florence takes a deep breath before boldly pulling out the seat across from him and sitting in it. His head snaps up to look at her, eyes narrowed in uncertainty and distrust.

“Look, Freddie…has a temper. And an ego issue. But he speaks only for himself. Not for his country, not for the west, and most certainly not for our team. On his behalf I offer you an apology.” Anatoly sits back, studying the peculiar woman in front of him. Petite and fragile, yet strong and determined all at once. The bitterness he had been holding eases away and he sighs in disappointment.

“Thank you, Florence. I appreciate your finding me and apologizing. It’s unusual, I must say. Dissent for Russians is common. It’s just so disappointing when it dishonors such a beautiful game. There is no place for politics in chess, and yet it is all too present.” Florence nods in agreement, fiddling with the queen in front of her.

“The press will be having a field day with tonight. Hopefully that will satisfy them and things will calm down. Their provocation was to be expected, but still unappreciated. It doesn’t excuse Freddie’s actions though. Not all americans are good, just like not all russians are bad.” Something shutters in her eyes at the last statement and Anatoly’s heart softens slightly. Florence’s stare lasts for miles, lost in her thoughts. Anatoly studies her for a moment before drawing his eyes away. She is captivating, but he should not—no, he cannot—let himself think so. He clears his throat.

“Would you like to play?” Florence blinks, returning to the present. Anatoly nods to the board.

“Oh. Yes. I’d love to.” Anatoly offers a slight smile and gets a hint of one in response. They dive into the game with passion, intensity, and intelligent calculations. Back and forth the opponents go, minutes flying by until the game ends in a draw. Florence stifles a yawn as they place the pieces back in their starting positions. “Thank you for the game, and for listening to what I had to say.” Florence rises to leave and Anatoly joins her.

“The pleasure is mine. Thank you. Would you care for some company on the cable car ride back to the hotel? It’s gotten quite dark out.” Florence buries a smirk; the dark is her solace, not her fear. Regardless, Anatoly’s concern is touching.

“Yes it has. Thank you.” The walk to the station is delightfully breezy, and Florence gulps in the cool night air. Anatoly watches as a peaceful smile settles across her face for the first time since they’d met. They board the cable car and ride silently to the hotel, Florence lost in the cool balm of night and Anatoly lost in observance. The tension almost constantly engulfing Florence is noticeably lessened between the game and the night. For once, she stands completely still. At last they arrive at the hotel, heading directly to the staircase. Anatoly begins the stairs leading up to the rooms, while Florence hesitates at the top of the stairs leading down to the bar. “Anatoly?” He turns, eyebrows drawn in concern at her small, cautious tone of voice. His warm chocolate eyes meet her stunning emeralds and she feels as though maybe she could remember what it was like to feel completely safe. “Thank you. For everything.”

Chapter Text

The bar smells of a pungent combination of cigar smoke, body odor, and spilled alcohol. Florence clings to the memory of the coffee shop on the mountain: old wood, freshly brewed coffee, and the faint wiff of Anatoly’s body wash. Less musky than Freddie’s, heady, calmer. At last Florence catches sight of Freddie’s blond hair, messy and tangled in someone else's fingers. Florence sighs as her heart clenches. What they had…it’s long gone by now. But they were committed, and while he’s forgotten, the sight of his lips on another’s always reminds Florence of all they lost. Somberly, she makes her way to a barstool in the near vicinity of Freddie. A slight flush rises to Florence’s pale, gaunt face as the bartender recognizes her and slides over a plain old water without asking. In town less than a week, for a competition none the less, and the bartender knows her and why she's there and who she’s with. It all makes her want to crawl under a table and hide. Back leaning against the counter, Florence watches Freddie. His hands on the women, their hands on him. Song after song after song. Minutes drag into hours before Freddie comes stumbling to the bar. Before he can order another drink, Florence intercepts him. “Freddie, it’s late. We’re here for a competition. It’s time to go.” He tries to muscle past her, an easy feat most of the time. But he’s smashed, and she is determined. Freddie looks down at the petite female in front of him, studying, considering, before letting out a loud chuckle.

“What do you know? You’re just a second. You’re not even the champion. I’m the one who does all the work. I’m the one who gets all the fame. I don’t need you.” His sneer breaks her heart and steels her insides.

“Freddie, please. You’re drunk. Let’s go back to the room.” Her softer tone pleads with him, begging him to listen to reason. Alcohol defies reason though, and Freddie will have none of the logic Florence is offering.

He shakes her off and steps towards the bar. “I’d like a—“ The bartender cuts him off.

“Sir, I'm going to have to ask you to leave.” Florence’s heartbeat quickens. No, Freddie, what did you do this time? Freddie opens his mouth to protest and the bartender stands to his full, enormous height. The blonde man swallows hard, and the bartender gives Florence a small nod. A sigh of relief rushes through her, mouthing thank you as she grabs Freddie’s hand and leads him out. In the elevator on the way to the third floor, Freddie squints against the overhead light, the excessive alcohol in his system no longer feeling as good as it had in the bar. The ride to their floor is silent, as is the brisk walk down the hall to their hotel room. Freddie angrily searches his pockets before realizing he doesn’t have his room key and stepping aside to allow Florence access to the door. Storming in, he throws his jacket in the chair and kicks his shoes off against the wall. Florence’s nerves are through the rough as she prepares to dare speak to him.

“Freddie?” Her cautious question is barely audible. Florence presses her hands together to keep them from shaking. Freddie’s stink eye silences her for the moment. He grabs his bottle of water and takes a swig before flopping back onto the bed. She clears her throat.

“What?! What is it?! What more can you possibly want? If I can’t be down their having fun, I want to be sleeping, or nearly anything but sitting here listening to you. Shut up or spit it out.” Freddie’s outburst leaves her quaking on the inside, but on the outside Florence merely blinks, her face remaining still in its somber expression.

“Festivities and introductions begin at ten in the morning. We will be there half an hour early. I’ll wake you at half past eight.” If Freddie cared to listen carefully to her monotone, he’d notice the strong undertones of resigned sadness tinged with hints of fear. But he doesn’t listen, doesn't care. With a sharp tug at the lamp light, he darkens his half of the room, nothing more than a glare and a mumbled ‘fine’ acknowledging what Florence had to say. She takes a deep breath and crosses the room to turn off her lamp too, hoping Freddie will be more pleasant in the morning. The balcony air is cool, but Florence doesn’t mind. Tears threaten to fall as they blur her vision, wondering how on earth she’s managed to end up like this. Once upon a time they were on the top of the world together. Life was tough, but they were tougher, together. Somewhere along the way, something got lost. Bridges crossed, paths not taken…things have changed, and Florence doesn’t know how much longer she can last.

Chapter Text

    It’s dark. It’s dark and it’s cold. It’s cold but she’s sweating. She’s trapped. Something’s closing in around her. Her breath comes in gasps and her heart rate quickens. Something has a vice grip around her heart, her chest. The gasping, the sobbing, the shaking. She's going to throw up. Florence fights the sheets her legs are tangled in to get out of bed, to the balcony, anywhere more open than here. In the moonlight, she begins to regain her senses. Her hands tremble with the fading panic. Slowly, Florence’s breaths even out, though her heart is still pounding like mad. A shaky hand pushes back her hair plastered across her clammy forehead. Why are her cheeks wet? A swipe at her eyes tells her tears were involved in the panic too. She closes her eyes, sliding down to sit with her back against the brick building. Once upon a time, a very long time ago, she could’ve woken Freddie up. He’d sit with her, talk with her, calm her down. The soothing circles he would draw on her back, the steady rhythm giving her something to focus on and someone to lean into…not anymore. Physical contact with Freddie is something that puts Florence on edge more and more each time, almost beginning to scare her. A hot rush of tears warms her cheeks in the chilled night air as the soul crushing loneliness sets in. There’s…no one else. Sure, there’s been a few chess games with Anatoly. There’s the older men from the chess organization in New Jersey. But there’s no one to confide in, to lean against when the going gets tough. Ages ago, Evá would tell her “life is tough, but you, my little dandelion, you are tougher.” Then she had clung to the notion; now she questions it. There’s no one left close. To be frank she’s terrified of letting anyone get close to her again. But the idea is so enticing. When they leave, when they betray her, when she ends up hurt like she always does, it’ll hurt like hell all over again. But in the mean time, anything to grant a reprieve from the loneliness deep enough to drown in. She thinks back to the man asleep in the hotel room. The tournament is going to go terribly, Florence just knows it. Exactly how could be debated. The possibilities are endless, each one worse than the last. They’ve made it so far, and yet it’s nothing like they imagined. They are nothing like they imagined. Well, she imagined. Florence has no idea how Freddie truly imagined them at the world championships. She knows the promises he made, all the words he said, but who’s to say any of that is true anymore. What will happen to them after the tournament? Will there even be a them? Her mind wanders to the kind Russian, the one whose game has taken in her mind and whose eyes have taken in her soul. In a few short hours, she’ll be up again, getting ready for the big day, the big fiasco perhaps. Maybe if time just stopped, just for a day. Florence entertains the idea to avoid returning to the hotel room. It still seems so small. How ironic that while life seems so big and overwhelming and she feels so, so small, the walls of the spacious hotel room still feel like they're pressing in around her, trapping her. Maybe if time just stopped for a day, maybe two. Florence would spend them playing chess with Anatoly, spilling her secrets between games, savoring having a confidant again. She shakes her head and stands. A stupid idea really. If anyone knew what goes on inside her head, they’d turn around and run full tilt in the opposite direction.  Sometimes that’s the hardest part of nights like these: waking up in the morning and trying to convince the world that everything is perfectly fine, while on the inside everything is crumbling down.

 

Hey guys! Sorry for the shortish chapter and that I think it's actually been months since I updated. I think I finally have a grasp of where the next few chapters are headed though? Now it's just finding time to write them. O.o I hope all of you lovelies are doing well!

-eli

Chapter Text

    The morning comes sooner than Florence would’ve liked. It feels as though she hardly slept at all. Then again, that is mostly true. Reluctantly, she turns off the alarm and drags herself out of bed. The games begin today, and she’ll have to wake Freddie in a little under three hours. Throwing on a sweater and leggings, she grabs a book and heads to the hotel lobby. She reaches the first floor and pads down the hallway towards the enticing scent of coffee. She fixes herself a cup and finds a seat to disappear into the pages of her book, losing herself in someone else’s mind for a while.
    The elevator dings and the door opens, allowing Anatoly to access the first floor hallway, A few blessed moments of solitude before his comrades awake. The games begin today, and Anatoly’s thoughts and feelings are all a jumble. His desire to win is far less than that of his comrades. All he wants is a good, clean, challenging game. Considering his opponent, Anatoly doubts the games will turn out as he hopes. He heads towards the lobby as he wonders how a such a kind, intelligent, level-headed woman ended up working with such a loose canon. He steps into the lobby and stops in his tracks. Well, well, well. Think of the devil and he shall appear. Her hair isn't tied up like he’s always seen it and it tumbles freely down around her shoulders. For a brief second he wonders what it would be like to run his fingers though her hair, to ease the tension evident in every part of her being, to have her look up at him and smile.  He shakes his head, pushing his foolish notions aside. She’s his opponent’s second, after all. Anatoly quickly crosses to the chair next to hers, a small coffee table between them. Florence remains still, lost in her book. She looks paler than usual, dark shadows standing out beneath tired eyes. He notices a slight tremble in her hand as she reaches for her coffee, grasping at air with her eyes still on the book. He nudges the cup into her hand and her head shoots up eyes wide and startled.
    “My apologies. I didn’t mean to startle you.” His voice is warm and comforting, soft in the morning silence.
    “No I’m sorry. I was a little oblivious to my surroundings.” Her voice is fragile and raspy, concerning Anatoly as she clears her throat.
    “Must be a good book.” She nods, placing her bookmark and closing the book. The cover displays suitcases stacked in an eerily lit attic.
    “It is. It’s about the contents of patient’s suitcases found in the attic of an old asylum years after it shut down.” Huh. He’d never have pegged her for a psych lover.
    “That sounds interesting. Do you read a lot of psych books?” Her voice is still soft but seems to be gaining strength and clarity as she speaks more and drinks the warm coffee.
    “They’re my favorite. It’s fascinating to see into other people’s minds.” It’s how she comes to terms with things. If she can understand why people act the way they do, if she can understand how their brains work…it doesn’t make things “better,” per se, but it puts Florence’s mind at rest a bit. The silence hangs as they both sip their coffee, the same topic on their minds. “Are you ready for the tournament?”
    Anatoly takes a deep breath, trying to think of how to answer her question. “Yes and no? The stakes are set high today.” Florence nods solemnly in agreement. For Florence, the stakes are so much higher than a simple win or lose. She has no doubt that it is the same for the Russian. A glance at her watch tells her it’s time to be headed back to the room. Florence stands, flustered at how quickly time has passed. The frightened, trapped look returns to her eyes, and Anatoly catches her wrist ever so gently. “If you need anything, 367. Don’t hesitate. Please.” She blinks, staring at him, standing as still as he’s ever seen. She nods almost imperceptibly before excusing herself with a hurried apology and rushing out of the lobby, leaving Anatoly sitting alone. His mind churns. He won’t throw the tournament. He can’t. It’d be a disgrace to the game, and he’d become a disgrace to his country. But he knows, both of their safeties depend on winning the games.

 

A/N: It's another short one. Sorry. The next should be longer? It's also kinda intense? You guys are wonderful.

Chapter Text

    Why didn’t she keep her mouth shut? Will she never learn? Five games to one. They were losing, and Freddie was mad. How could a Russian beat him? She should have never mention the alcohol, never turned the blame back on him. More than that she never should have mentioned that she could beat Anatoly. But god, the screaming, the ranting, the blaming…she was so sick of it, so trapped. So she spoke up. She reacted to his anger, fed it. And paid dearly for it. Screams turned into fists, leaving her breathless and shaking on the floor. But Freddie was still angry. Her ribs throb where his boot struck repeatedly. Florence never thought she’d be relieved to see him running off to a bar but this time his absence is a godsend. Her hands shake as she quickly packs all of her belongings, not taking the time to  fold or organize any of it. With one last glance around the room, she grabs her bag and leaves. The speed with which she walks down the hall to the stairs hurts like hell but she doesn't dare slow down. Up a flight of stairs, down another hallway…Florence takes a deep breath before lifting a hand and giving the door in front of her three quick, sharp raps. She stands shaking as she hears movement from inside the room, every second feeling like an hour as she waits. Finally, the heavy door swings open.
    Anatoly gasps. and Florence looks down in shame, her hair hanging to cover her face. He steps back and motions her inside, too shocked and horrified to speak. Wordlessly, she follows him to the sitting area of the suite. He quietly suggests for her to have a seat as he quickly prepares a bag of ice. When he returns, he finds Florence sitting silently in the same position he left her in. He approaches her softly and holds out the bag of ice. She looks up at him and his heart breaks all over again. With a whispered thank you, she places the ice over the darkening bruise spreading from her temple down to begin following a prominent cheekbone.
    “Um, Freddie decided to forfeit the tournament.” Anatoly nods. The officials had notified him earlier. He takes a breath, hesitating before posing an uncomfortable but necessary question.
    “Does he know your here?” She shakes her head and looks back down.
    “No. I, um, never thought I’d be glad to see him running off to the bar again.” He gently moves her hair behind her shoulder to see her face. Her eyes are dry, though she won’t bring them to meet his. He wishes he had the words to say that everything will be okay, that she has no reason to be ashamed, that she’s safe now, but he doesn’t. All he can do is his best to show her. Her breathes grow shallower and Anatoly’s brow furrow in concern.
    “Flo, are you okay?” A stupid question, he realizes as soon as it’s out of his mouth. Slowly, she scoots to the edge of the couch and stands up.
    “Just a little tender.” Her tight jawline is the only thing betraying the pain she's in. She was sitting for far longer than her ribs and back cared for. “And, um, if you don’t mind, not Flo? It’s, um, not my favorite.” She paces in tiny steps, her ribs still stabbing with every breath. The nickname is more than just not her favorite, but maybe the explanation can wait for another night. He nods in return.
    “Your breathing is still irregular. I’m worried about you.” His heart rises in his throat as he chokes out the next question, not wanting the answer as much as needing it to take care of her. “Where else did he get you?”
    “My ribs got the worst of it but everywhere else should be fine.” Florence begrudgingly admits the truth, hating to admit she’s in pain. Everywhere else…Anatoly hates to think about what all that might entail. How could Freddie, how could anyone be so cruel?
    “Are any broken?” A slight shake of her head sends her hair back over her face, hiding her expression.
    “I…I don’t know.” If Anatoly hadn’t been listening for an answer, if the apartment had been anything other than silent, he’d likely have missed her response. A spark of fury flares inside him at this monster.
    “Would it be okay if I looked?” She hesitates with her answer, knowing he’ll find out far more about her than she’d have intended on the first night, but also acknowledging that it would be best for someone to look at her ribs. She nods. He picks up her bag and leads her to the bedroom on the right, knowing it’d be more comfortable for her and hopefully less awkward with her laying down. He’d initially gotten the extra room for solitude space from his comrades, but now he’s even more grateful. She climbs carefully onto the bed, setting the bag of ice on the bedside table. With a stone face, she lays back and carefully tugs up the bottom of her shirt.
    Anatoly stifles a gasp. The front left of her torso is more purple than it is pale. He gently palpitates the ribs, wincing each time he sees her jawline tense. This has to be painful, no matter how gentle he tries to be. The bruise curls around to her back and he quietly asks to to lay on her opposite side. She hesitates, then closes her eyes and turns on her right side. Anatoly tugs the back of her shirt up further, searching for the end of the bruise. His hands still, and Florence tenses. With quiet words, she addresses his unasked question.
    “It’s not new. I was fourteen.” She feels a finger gently tracing the scar on her back, ironically enough one of the only parts of her not absolutely aching.
    “Was it…?” Anatoly cant bring himself to finish the question. He’s not sure he wants to know how long this has been going on.
    “No. On the contrary, I was protecting him.”

 

A/N: What?? Two updates in one day?? {Also read as: I'm excellent at finding ways to procrastinate studying}